Police in Pakistan may be illegally executing hundreds of people each year in fake “encounter killings”, human rights investigators have warned.
The term “encounter” is a widely understood euphemism for extra-judicial killings in Pakistan. Police accounts often say that criminal or terrorist suspects were shot after they resisted arrest or tried to ambush officers.
In reality many are killed in police custody, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday.
The group said it was concerned that many, “if not most”, of the 2,108 people reported by the media to have been killed in encounters in 2015 died in circumstances that were “faked and did not occur in situations in which lives were at risk”.
The report said: “In the vast majority of these cases, no police officer was injured or killed, raising questions as to whether there was in fact an armed exchange in which there was an imminent threat to the lives of police or others.”
Senior officers admitted the practice to researchers from HRW, who also found that Pakistan’s ill-equipped and poorly trained police regularly resort to torture to extract confessions.
Such practices have helped make the police “one of the most widely feared, complained against, and least trusted government institutions in Pakistan”, HRW said.
One unnamed official from Punjab province quoted in the report said junior officers believed the practice of staged killings did not damage the reputation of the police.
“As far as they are concerned ‘encounters’ are the perfect way of getting rid of hardened criminals,” he said. “They do not consider it a gross violation of human rights and instead see it as an effective way of delivering justice.”
The report said police resort to encounters because they are unable to gather enough evidence to ensure convictions, or are under pressure from senior commanders and local power brokers, such as landowners and politicians.
“In general, the police only kill habitual offenders and criminals who have committed heinous crimes such as rape, armed banditry, multiple murders, kidnapping,” an unnamed officer was reported as saying.
Antiquated laws, some of which date back to British colonial rule, gave police a high degree of freedom and little effort was made to cover up killings that are almost never investigated.
Police even boast to journalists off-the-record about high-profile “encounter” victims, as in a case last year in which four senior members of the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were shot dead by police in Lahore.
The technique has been widely used in recent years by police and paramilitary forces battling to bring order to Karachi.
Affluent residents often support these killings, which they say are responsible for a dramatic improvement in Karachi’s fortunes.
In a bleak account of the problems with policing in Pakistan, HRW also highlighted the widespread use of torture to extract confessions. Techniques include beatings, leg crushing, sexual abuse and a rack-like stretching body technique.
It also said police stations refuse to investigate complaints, particularly when lodged by vulnerable members of society or against influential figures, including relatives of senior police officers.
It cited numerous other examples of police demanding bribes, or making false arrests in order to extort cash from the victim.
Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said: “Law enforcement has been left to a police force filled with disgruntled, corrupt and tired officers.
“Police should have the resources, training, equipment, and encouragement to act professionally instead of leaving Pakistanis to rely on favours and bribes to seek justice.”