Nationwide protests at the police killing of a young ethnic Pashtun man in Pakistan’s largest city have shone a spotlight on allegations of persecution by the authorities against refugees from the country’s conflict-ridden northwest.
The Pakistani Supreme Court launched an inquiry on Jan. 19 into the death of 27-year-old aspiring fashion model Naqibullah Mehsud.
He was one of four men killed six days earlier in what police initially said was a shoot-out with suspected Islamist militants.
The Supreme Court planned to begin hearings on the case yesterday.
The police team that killed Mehsud was under the command of senior superintendent Anwar Ahmed Khan, who has been suspended since Jan. 20 on the recommendation of a police inquiry committee. The committee was set up after Mehsud’s father, Muhammad Khan Mehsud, who denies his son had any militant links, filed a kidnapping and killing complaint against him.
Anwar told reporters that he had done nothing wrong and said the investigation into his officers’ actions could allow the Taliban to regain a foothold in ethnic Pashtun parts of the city.
“I had no knowledge of Naqibullah Mehsud,” he said. “My staff told me that he is a militant with a criminal history.”
Police data from 2011 show that in the seven years Anwar has been in charge of Karachi’s Malir district, which has a large Pashtun population, at least 450 people have been killed in 200 clashes with police that involved weapons. The data does not give details of the circumstances of the shootings.
A senior police official, who asked not to be identified, said that the majority of those killed were ethnic Pashtuns.
Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun borderlands have been a hotbed of Islamist militancy in recent decades.
Pakistani police refer to any armed clash with suspects as an “encounter.” Some human rights activists and families of victims have for years alleged that such incidents are often staged to cover up extrajudicial killings.
Anwar said armed operations to kill suspects were official police policy in Sindh Province, of which Karachi is the capital, to combat the threat from militants.
“There was an on-going official policy ... for carrying out encounters to take out criminals and I have broken no law,” he said.
The provincial police chief denied there was such a policy.
“I don’t need to respond to irresponsible allegations,” Inspector-General of Police Allah Dino Khawaja said in a brief text message. “He has to appear before the investigation to defend and prove his claims.”
Sindh police said in a statement on Jan. 20 that it had launched an inquiry “to ascertain the facts regarding the police encounter in which Naqibullah Mehsud was killed.”
Some campaigners among the sprawling city’s Pashtun community said the story is not unusual, but it is the first to receive nationwide attention — in part because Mehsud, known as Naqib, does not fit the image of the militant from Pakistan’s lawless northern heartlands.
“He had a passion for wearing good clothes ... even in the picture of his body circulating on social media, he is seen wearing good clothes,” his cousin Noor Rehman said, while holding back tears.
Another senior police officer said no evidence linking Naqib to militancy had been found.
“His particulars were checked in all the criminal databases of police and nothing came up,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan’s chief justice on Tuesday summoned Anwar to appear for questioning at its first hearing this weekend.
Earlier that day, he was not allowed to board a flight leaving Pakistan for Dubai, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency said.
Anwar told reporters that he does not plan to appear before the court.
His children are studying in Dubai and he often visits, he said.
Pashtuns are Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group, and many have moved to the country’s big cities to escape violence along the Afghan border.
However, since the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban, whose leadership also comes from the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, Pashtuns in Karachi said they are all now seen as potential militants.
“This is not just about the fact that police are killing people, it is about racial profiling,” human rights lawyer Jibran Nasir said, adding that he was filing a petition with the Senate’s human rights committee.
“Naqib had a very public profile. Looking at pictures of Naqib modelling ... no one is willing to believe he had anything to do with Taliban,” Nasir said. “The problem here is not every Pashtun killed and profiled is a model.”
Figures posted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on its Web site show 1,226 people were killed in 784 police encounters nationwide in the past two years.
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