May issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

On the evening of April 21, 2002, after he had seen to the last of his patients, Dr. Ameer Muavia was leaving his Saddar clinic when he was accosted by armed men. One of them put a pistol to his temple, and pulled the trigger. Mortally wounded, the 35-year-old urologist was rushed to hospital and operated upon, but died a few hours later. Since the beginning of 2001, Muavia is the thirteenth doctor among 80 individuals who have fallen victim to an orgy of sectarian killings in Karachi. Of the victims, 51 were Shia and the rest, including Dr. Muavia, Sunni.

Threats and intimidation by religious extremists have become the order of the day. About six months ago, an industrialist in Karachi received an extortion letter from Asif Ramzi, the Karachi ‘amir’ of Qari Hye’s faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), the sectarian organisation responsible for hundreds of Shia assassinations in the city over the past few years. The letter was brazenly written on the organisation’s letterhead and included Asif Ramzi’s mobile phone number. Given that the incident took place after the LJ and the Sipah-e-Mohammed, its Shia counterpart, had been banned by President Musharraf on August 14, 2001, it was chilling evidence of the LJ’s contempt for the state apparatus. The industrialist has since left the country.

Last month, in a mall in the upmarket Clifton area, a group of women was asked by one of the shopkeepers whether they were Shia, presumably on account of their appearance that indicated Iranian origins. When they replied in the affirmative, the man, in a voice dripping with venom said, “We will hunt down and kill each one of you Shias.” Terrified out of their wits, the women beat a hasty retreat from the mall.

In the Defence Imambargah some months ago, two individuals, ostensibly beggars, were thrown out by security staff when they were noticed surreptitiously jotting down the registration numbers of cars standing in the parking lot. With many victims having been murdered in their vehicles after being tailed by hitmen, the men’s actions seemed ominous to say the least. Then, on the eve of Muharram this year, a circular by a leading gas company in Pakistan advised its Shia employees against hosting majalis at their homes for security reasons.

Meanwhile, the sense of insecurity among the medical community is palpable. Says Dr. Habib Soomro, general secretary PMA Karachi; “I personally know of 25 doctors who have left the country since the murder of Dr. Alay Safdar Zaidi in March this year.” These doctors include four of Dr. Zaidi’s friends who, at each other’s urging, had returned to Pakistan around the same time a year ago, leaving behind lucrative jobs in the US in order to serve their country. Among this group was cardiologist Dr. Imran Afridi. During his short-lived tenure at the National Institute of Cardio-Vascular Diseases, Dr. Afridi had, according to Dr. Soomro, wrought a miracle in the management of the government-run hospital.

Many doctors, either unable or unwilling for various reasons to resort to migration, live in mortal fear of becoming the target of an assassin’s bullet. Dr. Mujawir Hussain escaped an attempt on his life in 1998 that left him a paraplegic. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he reopened his clinic in his Model Colony home and continued to practice. In January this year, armed men opened fire on his house. Although he was not injured, the incident traumatised him to such an extent that he closed down his clinic altogether.

It is common knowledge that sectarian violence is a spillover of the establishment’s two-decade-old foreign policy on Kashmir and Afghanistan. The cornerstone of this policy was the fuelling of a jihadi culture in the many madrassahs that were allowed to proliferate unchecked across the country. Activists of the predominantly Deobandi militant organisations, who fought the establishment’s proxy wars, were actively patronised. In this climate, religious extremism of all hues flourished, and those who extended the concept of jihad to include the extermination of individuals belonging to other sects were also allowed to operate with impunity. The statistics are telling: in 1993, there was one sectarian murder; in 1994, there were 57.

There are a myriad examples of the state’s kid glove treatment towards religious militants. When the Sunni Tehreek chief, Saleem Qadri, was killed in Karachi last June, the bullet-riddled body of a Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP) activist, Arshad Polka, was discovered on the scene. Despite his affiliation with the overtly sectarian organisation that had spawned the LJ, the city’s senior bureaucracy suggested that his family be paid compensation. When this grotesquely inappropriate gesture attracted censure in the press, the proposal was dropped, and the case file mysteriously disappeared. No inquiry was instituted against the concerned officials. Likewise, on main Tariq Road, SSP activists forcibly took possession of a public park located adjacent to the Dolmen shopping mall, and erected a mosque on the site. The city administration quietly looked the other way.

On January 12, 2002, President Musharraf announced a ban on five more jihadi and sectarian organisations, besides the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Mohammed which had been banned last year. These included the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Tehrik-e-Jaffaria. Despite this, however, there has been no decline in sectarian killings even though the measures taken in the wake of the announcement were unprecedented, at least in Karachi. These included sealing the organisations’ offices and rounding up their leaders and activists. Prior to the ban, these militant organisations wielded such clout that the police dared not touch them, despite the fact that they harboured highly dangerous criminals. For instance, it was common knowledge that SSP activist, Haider Farooqui, was personally responsible for training perhaps a thousand jihadis in Afghanistan. Known in police parlance as “Cheetah” for his supposedly remarkable agility, Farooqui remains at large.

Several law-enforcement personnel had predicted that sectarian killings would continue with renewed zeal when the jihadi cadre returned from Afghanistan, and statistics appear to support this contention. Last year, there were 58 sectarian murders. In the first four months of this year, the tally has already reached 22, including five doctors who were killed within a space of one month. There seems to be no reprieve in sight.

In fact, there is a frightening new development among the militant cadres. Says one senior police official, “Before, each organisation had its own jihadi front; some, like the Jaish, were operating within both Afghanistan and Kashmir, while the Lashkar was engaged more deeply in Kashmir. Others, such as the SSP and LJ, were operating within the country. However, disillusioned with their leadership’s inability to prevent the government from forming an alliance with the US against Afghanistan, many of their top-level activists have broken away into splinter groups, united in the common goal of destabilising the government.” As he puts it, the “jihad-e-afzal” (the greater jihad) is over for the moment and the “ghar ka jihad” (the jihad at home) has taken its place. The splinter groups are also an outcome of the ban on the jihadi organisations which has removed the organisations’ central authority. This has made even nominal control over them far more difficult for law-enforcement agencies. They were able to exercise this control at least over the organisations’ principal leaders by a carrot and stick approach — for instance, by threatening to withdraw the police mobiles deputed for their protection if they did not comply with certain requests.

There are plenty of potential recruits for the new ghar ka jihad . Of the approximately 2000 activists of the banned organisations who were arrested in sweeping raids across the country immediately after President Musharraf’s announcement, a majority have reportedly been released, without any interrogation, on surety bonds.

Police sources believe that Shia sectarian terrorists have already been operating in splinter groups since 1996, when many leaders of their principal militant outfits were arrested in Karachi. “The Sipah-e-Mohammed is not the cohesive force that it was until about 1995,” says an official. “It was very active then and worked under different names such as Pasban-e-Islam and Sipah-e-Imam-e-Zamana. Their main leader, Zulqarnain Haider, is still at large.”

Tracking down terrorists, sectarian or otherwise, is usually a a complex job. For one, each participant is assigned a specific task in the operation — identifying the target, tracking his routine, acquiring the getaway vehicle or carrying out the assassination — and he is kept in the dark regarding other details. Thus, even if an activist is apprehended, he is unable to divulge the identity of the others. Moreover, many of these terrorists take refuge in the slums of Karachi, where the labyrinthine warrens provide easy escape routes.

Says a senior police official, “the terrorists’ modus operandi always includes the presence of the operation’s ‘commander’ at a safe distance in order to monitor events. He himself rarely engages in the actual act of assassination.” According to him, when the Masjid-e-Hur massacre took place in ’99, Naeem Bokhari alias Attaur Rehman, then second-in-command of LJ’s Qari Hye faction in Karachi, was in the immediate vicinity to ensure that everything went according to plan. It has been observed through the course of investigations that when they set their sights on a target, terrorist organisations pursue it with utmost single-mindedness. At times, says the official, an operation can take up to six months in the planning. Some targets are selected through a perusal of telephone bills, as in the case of Zafar Hussain Zaidi, director, ministry of defence, who was murdered on July 30, 2001. This information was revealed by the accused in the case, Shahid Mufti, the pesh imam of a mosque in Malir. During his interrogation by the police, Mufti admitted to complicity in 10 other sectarian killings.

A few months ago, law-enforcement agencies managed to net Riaz Basra, one of the most wanted sectarian terrorists in Pakistan, who has a price of 50 lakh rupees on his head. Basra’s arrest has till date not been officially disclosed, perhaps with a view to using him as a decoy to nab other terrorists. According to a senior police official, Basra himself was nabbed through an accomplice who, unbeknown to him, had been arrested earlier by intelligence agents and agreed to cut a deal with them in exchange for leniency. “These people have a hierarchical network through which they contact each other, usually after prayers at the mosque,” says a source. “We had to patiently wait for Basra to contact this accomplice. When he did so, the man asked Basra to meet him at his house at a certain time. The accomplice was milking his buffalo when Basra arrived and found intelligence personnel lying in wait for him.” He adds, however, that so far no militant has been trapped by Basra himself.

Getting criminals to switch sides in return for personal benefit is not a novel tactic and, although effective, it can present some unexpected obstacles, as was the case with LJ’s Asif Ramzi. The net was about to close around him some time back, when, says a source, a call from the higher echelons of power, which he refuses to identify, gave directions against proceeding ahead “because Ramzi is working for the law-enforcement agencies.” On the contrary, Ramzi remains on the police’s most-wanted list and has been listed as absconder in several murders.

Even when sectarian terrorists have been apprehended, they have often been able to take advantage of legal lacunae in a hopelessly overburdened court system and obtained bail. A case in point: Abdul Ghafoor Nadeem, along with two others, was arrested for the murder of one Syed Adeel Raza Jafri on June 18, 1994. All the accused were subsequently released on bail. A month later, on July 23, six worshippers were massacred in a New Karachi mosque. Abdul Ghafoor Nadeem was again arrested but incredibly, obtained bail once again and remains a free man. He also happens to be the chief of the SSP, Karachi. Eight years later, both cases remain under trial. It is also no secret that judges, reluctant to convict terrorists out of fear for their lives and that of their families, are easily persuaded to adjourn case proceedings ad nauseam. According to police sources, even obtaining a remand from the court for suspects in sectarian murders is, for the same reason, an uphill task.

Recent events appear to suggest that a change in policy has been put into action. Until recently, one of the most wanted sectarian terrorists in the country was Lal Mohammed, better known as Laloo (head money: 20 lakh rupees). A native of Mailsi in Punjab, Laloo was reportedly a humble kabariya (dealer in second-hand goods), until he was recruited by Abdul Ghafoor Nadeem as his gunman. On August 14, 1996, an SSP procession in Guru Mandir was fired upon in which 14 people, including several maulanas, were killed. The Suzuki in which Laloo was accompanying Ghafoor Nadeem was also attacked; in fact the FIR of the incident was lodged by Laloo himself. Police sources contend that it was this incident that incited Laloo to embark on a litany of sectarian murders, although his name first came to the law-enforcement authorities’ notice with the killing of two Iranian engineers in Clifton in February 1998. Officially declared absconder in the murder of at least three Shias, including two doctors, he was also suspected, as second-in-command to Akram Lahori, of coordinating the assassination of the Pakistan State Oil managing director, Shaukat Mirza as well as Ehteshamuddin Haider, the brother of Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider.

On April 1, 2002, evening newspapers were emblazoned with the news that Lal Mohammed alias Laloo, one of the most wanted sectarian terrorists, had been arrested. When confirmation was sought, a reliable source in the police dismissed the information as an “April Fool’s joke” adding cryptically however, that “some important news will come to light in a couple of days.” Two days later, morning newspapers reported that Laloo had been killed in a “police encounter.” Interestingly, a fortnight prior to this incident, the same official had contended that “within the next eight to ten days, some of the splinter groups will be brought together to rein in the others.” Another source confirmed that the so-called “police encounters” in which five sectarian terrorists had been killed in Vehari and Bahawalpur recently, had also been fake.

Law-enforcement personnel also claim that in a recent development, the top tier of the two factions of the Lashkar have decided to set their differences aside. The rift in the LJ had taken place some time back, when certain members reportedly criticised the party’s head honcho, Riaz Basra, for poor planning of operations, with some even accusing him of collusion with intelligence agencies to get their colleagues apprehended. As a result of this infighting, the LJ had split into the Qari Hye and the Riaz Basra factions. With Basra’s arrest, his brother-in-law Akram Lahori became de facto chief of the group.

In the post-Afghanistan scenario, however, with the state apparatus no longer held hostage to a pro-jihad policy, the ground realities are quite different. “Nevertheless,” says a police official, “It is rumoured that Akram Lahori is unhappy with the reconciliation as it compromises his power base. In fact, one theory goes that a recent increase in sectarian killings in the Punjab, from where the Basra group draws most of its activist cadre, is a result of Lahori’s attempt to demonstrate his clout in the organisation.”

The steadily increasing number of victims have made a mockery of the government’s avowed aim to tackle sectarian violence with a firm hand. On the contrary, its actions so far, announced with much fanfare but dwindling swiftly into half-measures, may have served to render extremist elements more elusive than ever. Those entrusted with the task of apprehending them are aware of the risks involved, and their fears are well-founded; several police officials have been murdered, particularly in the Punjab, on account of actively investigating cases of terrorist killings. “These are people who will hunt you down even after your retirement,” says a senior official. “When we apprehend a terrorist, we don’t even want to hold a press conference and announce it for fear of being the next target. And if they can’t get you, they go after your family — look what happened to Ehteshamuddin Haider. He paid with his life for his brother’s stand against religious militants.”