The murder of a Pashtun man in Karachi by the Sindh police last week has brought renewed attention to the brutal practices of Pakistan’s police and security forces.
According to his relatives, Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old from the war-torn region of South Waziristan, was kidnapped by plainclothes police officers in Karachi earlier this month. On January 16, Mehsud’s family was told that he’d been killed in a shootout with police along with 4 other alleged terrorists a few days earlier. Mehsud was buried in his hometown of Makin in South Waziristan on Friday. On the same day, a large demonstration in Karachi to demand justice for Mehsud was viciously crushed by baton-wielding police.
Naqeebullah Mehsud made a living as the owner of a small clothing store on the outskirts of Karachi. He was also an aspiring fashion model, having amassed 14,000 followers on the Facebook account he used to promote his modeling, according to Al Jazeera. While the Sindh police claim that Mehsud was a member of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and that he was involved in terrorist attacks, they have failed to provide a shred of evidence to back up this assertion. Meanwhile, Mehsud’s relatives, human rights organizations and Pashtun activists continue to insist that he was the innocent victim of an extrajudicial killing. According to the Dawn, a spokesman for the South Waziristan chapter of the TTP released a statement last week in which it denied any association with Mehsud and described the Sindh police’s allegations against the latter as “baseless.”
On Saturday, following days of angry protests across the country, Sindh’s Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Rao Anwar, who led the operation resulting in Mehsud’s death, was transferred from his post. Supporters of the Mehsud family have demanded an independent investigation, having no faith in the three-member police inquiry set up by the government to investigate the killing.
The death of Naqeebullah Mehsud has provoked widespread outrage across the country, particularly among Pashtuns. In recent years, members of this ethnic group have often been stereotyped as hopelessly “backward” and more likely to engage in terrorist attacks against Pakistani targets. Rarely mentioned is the fact that the Pashtun people have suffered disproportionately due to the war raging on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Since 2004, the Pakistani military has conducted numerous counterinsurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These operations have been carried out at the behest of Washington and against the will of the Pakistani people. Naqeebullah Mehsud’s home region of South Waziristan has itself been the scene of such operations, which have often involved indiscriminate shelling, torture and extrajudicial killings. Pashtuns in the tribal areas have also been terrorized by US drones with the tacit approval of Pakistan’s ruling elites and military establishment. Millions have been displaced as a result of Islamabad’s policies.
The murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud should be understood as part of a larger pattern of state brutality. The use of extrajudicial killing and other ruthless tactics has been a pervasive practice among Pakistani police and security forces, particularly when confronted with movements of marginalized ethnic groups. Indeed, this is a fact to which not only Pashtuns, but also the Baloch and Muhajir communities can attest.
Earlier this month, the Islamabad-based think tank, Center for Research and Security Studies, released a report on violence deaths in the country during 2017. According to the report, more Pakistanis died last year in “encounter killings”, a euphemism for extrajudicial murders, by the police than in suicide bombings. 495 people were killed in what police claimed were shootouts, while 298 were killed in suicide attacks and 144 died in various bombings.
The police in Pakistan have been under increased scrutiny recently due to the horrific rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl named Zainab in the city of Kasur in Punjab. The murder sparked furious protests against the local police, which had failed to investigate a series of rapes and murders of other children in Kasur over the past year. After two of the protesters were gunned down by police, residents of Kasur torched the office of a local bureaucrat and tried to burn down the homes of local politicians. Though the protests were prompted by Zainab’s murder, they were also an expression of class-based anger aimed at Pakistan’s corrupt ruling elites. This was evident in the interviews given to the media by many residents of Kasur, in which issues such as inequality and government corruption were raised alongside the plague of sexual violence. Eventually, the Punjab Rangers, a paramilitary force, had to be called in to restore “order.”