#SahiwalEncounter: Is that all we are now, “human shields” and “collateral damage”?

Published: January 21, 2019

None of it excuses the fact that it were the state’s bullets that killed the civilians. PHOTO: EXPRESS

I don’t intend for it to sound sensational, but there were four bullets in a 13-year-old child’s body that were paid for by our tax money. This would be an appropriate time to question our security policies.

Four people were recently shot dead by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) personnel on a highway in the Sahiwal district. The incident resulted in the deaths of the driver and three members of a family, including both parents who have left behind three orphaned children.

There are several versions to the story, by both eye-witnesses and the CTD itself. One may have to pardon my lack of faith in the official version, which is always the most rigorously circulated and readily believed. This scepticism is reinforced when the government’s version of the events sounds ominously similar to what the Israel Defence Force (IDF) might say following a massacre of Palestinian civilians.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, while giving a statement about the Sahiwal killings, maintained that ‘terrorists’ were using the family as human shields.

Things took a turn from bad to worse when Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat called the innocent victims of the ‘encounter’ “collateral damage”.

A ‘human shield’ argument marks the lowest, most reprehensible and the most convenient defence of state violence. If official versions of violent incidents are to be believed, there’s not a single house in Kashmir, Palestine, Vietnam, Burma or Uighur that wasn’t razed because of some ‘terrorist’ hiding in its basement. Every civilian casualty in record occurs because a terrorist waves at an armed agent of the state before crouching in cover behind the closest civilian.

None of it excuses the fact that it were the state’s bullets that killed the civilians. It seems that the justice system’s maxim that it’s better to let 10 criminals go than punish one innocent, does not apply to other state institutions. What makes the atrocity more tragic – if such a thing is even possible – is that the alleged ‘terrorists’ who incited the incident, managed to escape anyway.

As always, official platitudes followed public outrage. Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted his ‘shock’ at the event, and promised that the state would take responsibility for the welfare of the orphaned children. Sixteen counter-terrorism officers were arrested and ironically booked under terrorism law.

It’s certainly a start, and one dares to hope for justice to prevail. But arresting the offenders while denying a culture of brutality against citizens by their own protectors, would be of little use. The tragedy in Sahiwal is neither the first nor the last of its kind. We’re still a country where failing to stop at a check post may result in guards open firing at the car, as they did in Islamabad in 2017, killing a 27-year-old citizen.

As Hamza Shehbaz correctly identified, there is pressing need for legislation that prevents Sahiwal-like atrocities from occurring. Security agencies, however important, must be regulated.

The incident at Sahiwal is both a tragedy, as well as a warning for more Sahiwals to come should the state fail to implement new regulations on its security apparatus. What is certain to make conditions worse, is a government siege-mode in which it attempts to justify its fatal flaws by borrowing the language of established tyrants.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • layla hai

    We should file a complaint against human rights violation! What’s worse is how they claimed the family to be shields used by terrorists, as if that justifies them being brutally murdered.Recommend

  • stevenson

    This is the true face of Imran Khan’s Pakistan where it has become a land of doing nothing, making uturns and supporting lawlessness like dharnas and killings !Recommend

  • Iftikhar Khan

    No level of condemnation and no use for asking justice after the gruesome murder of innocent civilians by the state. There should have been 1000-fold more anger over this incident than acquittal of Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case, but then we are the people of the land of the pure.
    The collateral damage theory is totally bogus in this case.Recommend

  • Shabnam Memon

    We dont want this kind of #Madani Riyasaat where security protectors brutaly kill innocent people and blam them on the name of terroristRecommend

  • Nisar Alvi

    The CTD actors who killed the innocents in Sahiwall incidents are very valuable and should be protected. They can explain the inner workings and operational manuals of their department and expose all other incidences of aggression in which hundreds of innocent citizens were killed and how and in what fashion the Department covered those killings by fabricated stories. This is a great opportunity to eliminate such criminals from not only this department but from all other similar law enforcement agencies.
    Sharif and Zardari criminals nourished these elements for so many years for their own selfish reasons. It is the time to clean them up.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Humza, want to to know about the Model Town Massacre? 17 people
    NOT 14 shot dead on orders of the Ruler of Punjab!! After this many
    years they are still investigating! No conclusions yet. Oh! Forgot!
    One was a pregnantime woman. So that would be 2 people.
    So you can say, that would be the true face of the Nawab of Adiala or the Rajah Of Raiwind err,…hmm…or hey! The Darbari from Lok Lakhpat.Recommend

  • gp65

    It is interesting that the two other people who supposedly blew themselves up – who were hiding in Zeeshan’s home were tracked because Zeeshan’s home was under surveillance even when Zeeshan was not there.
    But they did not know that there were 7 people in the car that Zeeshan was because of the tinted glasses.
    No one has also explained how come Zeeshan’s brother got the Dolphon security clearance if Zeeshan was being monitored for 2 years by the agencies.
    It is also interesting that they knew whom to arrest but yet the FIR is against unknown CTD personnel.
    There is no reason to believe that any real action will be taken when SSP Anwar Rao roams free after 444 extra judicial killings.
    Sadly, even in India the police resorts to these. Fortunately citizen journalism with ordinary people able to make video recordings has brought a lot of these practices to light.Recommend

  • gp65

    It is important to note that Imran Khan rightly criticized US drones due to ‘collateral damage’ which he thought was unacceptable. He must be equally tough with Pakistani LEA who killed 3 innocent people and orphaned 3 kids.
    Even with Zeeshan, he should have been arrested and tried in anti-terror court considering that he was in observation for so long. How is killing an unarmed man acceptable?Recommend

  • Parvez

    It’s worth pointing out that the Punjab police is the child of the Sharif brothers, weened and nurtured by them for some 30 years…..their performance was highlighted in the disgraceful Model Town butchery in which even today justice for those killed is far away. Having said that the PTI government is giving the impression of ‘ just not understanding how things work ‘ and if the perception of ineptness is allowed to solidify, the PTI will be in real trouble.
    Another aspect that needs pointing out is that the criminal judicial system is broken and unless it is urgently attended to incidents like this will keep happening.Recommend