By Rahimullah Yusufzai
The recent slaughter of defenceless civilians in Pakistan has prompted politicians to seek accountability from the military and security forces.
SILENCED: The killing of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad is the latest in a string of civilian murders
Investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad's recent murder is the latest in a string of incidents in Pakistan in which defenceless civilians have been killed. In at least two instances in Karachi and Quetta, the security forces were directly involved in the killings and had to face unprecedented criticism. Some of these incidents have provided politicians with an opportunity to demand military accountability.
The most vocal politician on this issue was Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). He asked the military to change its 'mindset', accused the army of running a 'parallel government' and demanded an end to its dominance of Pakistan's foreign policy and greater civilian control to strengthen national security. He wanted the military's budget to be debated in parliament and those running its affairs to be made accountable. Sharif also proposed authorizing the assembly's House Committee to scrutinize the budget of the country's premier secret organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI faced the most criticism for its high-handedness and its role in the disappearance of people.
Having twice served as the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif knows the power of the army and the ISI. In his Lahore speech in which he made the above mentioned remarks during a reference to the late Saleem Shahzad, he recounted how the then army Chief General Pervez Musharraf kept the air force and naval chiefs and the Corps Commanders in the dark about the Kargil War with India in 1999.
What Nawaz Sharif didn't allude to in his speech was his own helplessness as prime minister during that period when Musharraf planned and executed the Kargil operation, almost bypassing his government by sending troops to occupy strategic heights located in the Indian-held Jammu & Kashmir and then failing to supply them.
Nawaz Sharif's transformation has been surprising, considering the fact that he was a protégé of General Zia-ul Haq when the latter ruled Pakistan in the 1980s and was very close to the army high command. But gradually he developed differences with the military and the wedge between them widened when General Musharraf staged the 1999 coup and removed Sharif from power. Since then he has been a strong critic of the military's involvement in politics and has taken a principled position on the issue. His views have greater significance because he belongs to the Punjab, which is Pakistan's biggest province in terms of population and provides the majority of soldiers to the armed forces. The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has long been led by the Bhuttos, who are from Sindh province, which has meagre representation in the powerful military. Ironically, the PPP has traditionally been an anti-establishment party with poor ties to the military. Now that position has been taken up by Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, while the PPP under President Asif Ali Zardari — spouse of the late Benazir Bhutto — has moved closer to the military leadership.
The brutal murder of Saleem Shahzad, the bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online in Pakistan, who wrote on terrorism and security issues, wasn't the only case in which a journalist was attacked and silenced. Seventy-six journalists have lost their lives since January 1, 2000 in Pakistan, mostly in violence linked to the so-called 'war on terror'. The last ones to die were two young journalists, Shafiullah Khan and Asfandyar Abid Naveed, who were killed on June 11 in a suicide bombing in Peshawar.
However, Saleem Shahzad's murder caused huge outrage and journalists from all over Pakistan staged a sit-in outside the Parliament House in Islamabad to protest the incident and demand a judicial probe into his disappearance and assassination. Leading politicians from all parties, including Nawaz Sharif, turned up at the sit-in to show solidarity with the protesting journalists. The government finally accepted the demand of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and constituted a judicial commission headed by a serving judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to probe Shahzad's murder. There is, however, not much hope that those involved in the murder will be properly identified and punished. In this case, the suspicion has fallen on the intelligence agencies, which have never been held accountable.
There have been many incidents of extrajudicial killings, but two recent ones have stood out. In one tragic episode, five foreigners on their way to Iran via Afghanistan and Pakistan were gunned down by personnel of the paramilitary Frontier Corps and the Balochistan Police in Quetta and then described as suicide bombers to hide the crime. Two of them, a couple, were later identified as Russian nationals by their family members who came from Russia. They were buried in Quetta. The bodies of the remaining three are still being kept at the mortuary of a public hospital in Quetta for lack of identification, though it is generally believed that they were Chechens. Though protests were staged in Quetta to condemn the incident and the government ordered a judicial probe, it remains to be seen if the uniformed killers will ever be punished.
Another incident that shocked the nation was the point-blank killing of a teenager, Sarfaraz Shah in Karachi. Targeted killings are common in Karachi and recently 20 people were shot dead in one day in incidents involving political parties, ethnic groups and criminals. But Sarfaraz Shah was killed by personnel of the Sindh Rangers, another paramilitary force, and the scene was captured on camera by a brave TV cameraman as the young man begged for his life.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo motto notice of the incident and ordered the removal of the Sindh Rangers Director General Major General Ejaz Chaudhry and the provincial police Chief Fayyaz Leghari for their negligence and for trying to justify the killing. The government has also ordered an inquiry into the incident and withdrawn some of the vast powers enjoyed by the Rangers. Commentators have noted that past inquiries have not achieved much or delivered justice to those wronged and this one may not achieve the desired result. Obtaining justice is particularly difficult if the accused are men in uniform.
Still, the media in Pakistan is vibrant and willing to take up such cases, and the judiciary is active. These two institutions continue to inspire hope. The political parties also pursue issues when they are identified and highlighted by the media and taken by the judiciary through suo moto action. The outcome of the three judicial probes into the murder of Saleem Shahzad, the point-blank killing of Sarfaraz Shah and the targeted assassination of the five foreigners in Quetta should determine if justice is delivered, and whether the accused — even if they happen to be members of the security forces and law-enforcement agencies — are taken to task or not.
Source: asian affairs, July 2011, London