Kharotabad killings and the cover up

In an in-depth investigation, Mehreen Zahra-Malik reveals the sordid details behind the May 17th murder of five Russian/Tajik civilians by Pakistani security forces near Kharotabad in Baluchistan. This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

One wounded woman makes an appeal for surrender moments before her body is riddled with more bullets.

Jamal Tarakai had barely sat down to a late lunch on May 17 when he heard gunshots. Leaving his food untouched, he jumped on his motorbike and drove towards the source of the noise. About 200 metres from his home in Kharotabad on the outskirts of the capital of Balochistan, Quetta, was a Frontier Corps (FC) check post. As Tarakai pulled up on the chowk, he saw at least five FC guards shooting into a pile of sandbags, the firing so intense it created a whirlwind of dust, making it difficult for the cameraman to see who, or what, was being shot at so fiercely.

Pulling out his camera, the journalist started filming the scene. At some point, there was a pause in the firing. The dust settled, somewhat, and the lower portion of a woman in a red shalwar-kameez could be seen lying on the ground. She slowly raised an arm and waved it in the air, fingers stretched out – to signal surrender? To seek mercy? The outstretched hand prompted two of the men in fatigues to start firing again, until it was certain anything living on the receiving end was now almost certainly dead.

TV channels immediately began to pump out congratulatory stories, cheering the FC guards for a job well done. Five alleged Chechen suicide bombers, including three women, had been killed in an encounter with security forces, it was reported. The Balochistan Home secretary quickly issued a statement saying the suspects were wearing suicide vests and had hurled hand grenades at the FC, killing one FC guard, Naik Mohommad Sajjad. The Capital City Police Officer, Daud Junejo, said the five foreigners were Chechen militants linked with Al Qaeda; that they had been planning to carry out attacks in Quetta; and that the women had showed the officers suicide vests and threatened to blow themselves up.

Police officials said they had recovered two suicide jackets from the bodies of the alleged suicide bombers. “Had the suicide bombers crossed the checkpost, there would have been massive destruction in the city,” a police official told this scribe the day after the incident, asking not to be named.

The next day, Junejo told the media all five “attackers” had died in a bomb explosion. This, despite nationally-aired video footage showing at least one suspect being shot to death. Two days after the shooting, it was reported that one of the women shot dead was pregnant.

Contradictions surface

CCPO Junejo first told the media that the foreign “terrorists” were killed by security forces who did not give them a chance to retaliate. By Thursday however, he claimed the foreigners died when the hand grenades they were carrying exploded. He claimed to have recovered 48 fuses, seven detonators and some other material from the bodies and luggage of the foreigners.

But officials of the bomb disposal squads who reached the site to examine materials allegedly recovered from the bodies denied that any suicide jackets were found. In fact, against the usual practice of displaying suicide jackets to the media, the jackets were not shown in this case, though four hand grenades, said to have been found near the bodies, were put on display.

Police said the foreigners disregarded the police when it signaled them to stop as they drove down Quetta Airport Road; in fact, they accelerated their vehicle, police sources claimed. The police team chased them and informed the FC checkpost about the approaching vehicle. When the foreigners reached Kharotabad, they opened fire on police and FC personnel, who retaliated and killed them.

Alternative versions of the story soon surfaced. Eyewitnesses said when the foreigners approached the policemen posted on the Airport Road checkpoint, one of the policemen demanded money for letting them cross the checkpoint. The foreigners had already greased the palms of policemen at a previous check-post at Kuchlak and refused to pay. A minor scuffle broke out and the foreigners fled the police checkpost.

By the time they reached another check-post in Kharotabad, located on the outskirts of Quetta, policemen posted there had already received information that “suicide bombers” were attempting to enter Quetta city. “Policemen at the [Kharotabad] checkpost heard a message which was passed on the police control, that seven Chechen suicide bombers were heading towards Kharotabad check-post,” a senior policeman told this scribe. “The police, and the FC, acted on that message.”

Eyewitnesses say the foreigners abandoned their car near the FC checkpost where they had another run-in with the police and started running towards the checkpost. With the police behind them and the FC in front, they didn’t stand a chance.

Investigations begin

After the residents of Kharotabad gathered at the Press Club to lodge a protest against the incident, Balochistan chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani called for an investigation. The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights also took notice of the killing. “Certain dos and don’ts are followed even in times of war. What happened in Kharotabad was not only unlawful, but also unethical and made it seem as if law enforcement agencies in Pakistan have a licence to kill,” the head of the committee, Riaz Hussain Fatyana, told this scribe. “I am saying this as the chairman of the committee on human rights: law enforcement agencies are abusing citizens’ rights and going scot-free.”

Following the several suspicions about the incident after the controversial police inquiry and the autopsy report revealed by Dr Baqir Shah, the police surgeon in the case, Fatyana sent a fact-finding mission to Balochistan comprising the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Human Rights, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, and the President’s Media Advisor, Farahnaz Ispahani.

Looking at the foreigners travel documents, the mission quickly determined that the media and police had gotten the very basics of the case wrong. For starters, the five ‘Chechens’ were actually four Russians and one Tajik. The travelers were seven in number, of whom two – a Russian national and a local facilitator who, according to the taxi driver, spoke the local language and was responsible for the travel arrangements of the foreigners – managed to flee. The Russian nationals were all residents of Dagestan Republic and had entered Pakistan from Iran using infrequent routes. They had previously visited Mashhad, Iran.

“One of the most starling things we heard during the two-day fact-finding mission was from the taxi driver, Ata Muhammad. The police presented him as a witness to confirm that while driving the foreigners, he had seen a hand grenade in their possession,” Khokhar told this scribe. “But when the commision questioned him he said he had not seen anything, except a couple of shampoo bottles, clothes and books in a foreign language. ”

“Someone in the room asked Ata if he would put his hand on the Quran and testify that he had indeed seen a hand grenade while driving the victims,” Farahnaz Ispahani told this scribe. “It was at that point that he broke down and said he was pressured by the SHO and other police officials to say that he had seen a hand grenade in the victims’ hands.”

Ata is a teacher by day and drives a taxi in the afternoons and evenings to make extra money. “The policemen told me I would get a promotion if I said what they told me to,” Ata told this scribe. “I made the earlier statement that the foreigners carried a hand grenade under mental pressure and threat from the police. I did not see anything suspicious. The foreigners gave me Rs1300 and told me to take them to the border. They told me to take a route free of checkposts because they didn’t want to pay any more police officers.”

Police crack down on witnesses

Ata’s is not the only story of intimidation. The police surgeon Dr Shah confirmed before the fact-finding mission that all the victims died of gunshot wounds from the police and FC fired at close range, from 50-60 feet, instead of hand grenades as claimed by the police.

“Collectively 21 bullets were removed from the bodies of the victims while they had sustained 56 bullet injuries in total,” Dr Shah revealed. Contrary to the police claims, he told this scribe that when the bodies came to him for autopsy, none of the victims held a hand grenade pin, as shown in a picture presented by the police.

“When you commit suicide, for instance, as you pull the trigger, your finger freezes in place,” Khokhar explained, quoting medical experts. “Dr Shah told us [fact-finding mission] that when the bodies arrived at his lab, their hands were all flat. Had they been holding hand grenades when they died, their hands would have been differently curled. But that was not the case. That picture of one of the victims holding a hand grenade pin; the pin was definitey planted later, after the autopsy. That’s one of the startling things we’ve found,” Khokhar said.

Khokhar believes, as he’s said in the NA commission’s final report, that the foreigners were mere human traffickers on their way to Europe via Turkey. “There’s no evidence to suggest they were terrorists,” he said.

“Terrorists don’t go on suicide missions with their 8-month pregnant wives,” Ispahani added. “This was murder in cold blood.”

Dr Shah’s testimony makes the police story seem ever more suspicious. “The shrapnel and splinters were found in the backs of the victims,” Dr Shah told this scribe. “If they had used hand grenades the wounds would have been on the front of the body. That’s basic stuff.”

Dr Shah, who contradicted the police in his testimony and said the victims had, beyond a doubt, died of gunshot wounds fired by FC and police, has paid for his testimony. The evening after performing a post-mortem of the bodies of the foreigners and testifying before the fact-finding mission, Dr Shah was dragged out of his car outside a local restaurant and thrashed by men in police uniforms. He was admitted to hospital with severe wounds to his head.

“The very same evening after the testimony, I went to pick up a patient’s lab reports and then headed to Quetta’s food street for a late dinner with two other doctors. As I waited for my food in my car, seven or eight police cars pulled up, led by the DSP’s vehicle,” Dr Shah told this scribe.

Men in police uniforms stepped off the vehicle. “One of the constatables pointed at me and said, ‘That’s the one’,” Dr Shah said. “Through the car window, one policemen grabbed my arm and said, ‘You’re coming to the police station with us.’ I relented and the policeman hit me with the butt of his gun. ‘It’s the DIG’s orders that you come with us,’ the policeman told me,” Dr Shah added.

Dr Shah says the City SHO Naimatullah Achazai and Naseerul Hasan Shah, the Gawalmandi Thana SHO, were part of the police contingent that repeatedly hit the surgeon and managed to take him to the police station. “I sat at the thaana for about thirty minutes and was then told that as per the commandant’s orders, I could now leave,” Dr Shah said.

When news of Dr Baqir’s abduction and torture by police hit TV channels, the police said they had mistakenly picked him up. “He did not introduce himself. The men mistook him for someone else. He should have just said who he was,” a senior police official told this scribe, requesting anonymity.

But Dr Shah insists this is bunkum. “I’m a police surgeon. I work with the police everyday. Quetta is a small city. Everyone from the constables to the DIG police knows me by name and face. I work with them on a daily basis. I can name the guys who picked me up, and they’re arguing that they didn’t know who I was? That’s garbage.”

In the line of duty

The cameraman who caught the killings on camera has faced a similar fate as Dr Shah. Jamal Tarakai, a Quetta-based photojournalist working for various media organisations, filmed the first video of security forces firing at the foreigners on 17 May. About a month later, he was arrested, beaten and abused by police in Quetta on the morning of June 14.

It was Tarakai who caught the image of the woman raising her hand, presumably appealing to the FC and police to stop firing. The video was telecast by a number of TV channels after Tarakai presented it before the fact-finding mission of the NA as well as the judicial tribunal formed to probe the mysterious killings. The photojournalist also told the tribunal that the foreigners were unarmed.

In retaliation, policemen on motorbikes followed Tarakai on the morning of June 14 as he was headed to the Quetta Press Club and then forced him to the Kharotabad police station. “A policeman threw my identity card on the floor and started beating me,” Tarakai told this scribe from an undisclosed location. “I had been receiving threatening calls on my cell phone since the Kharotabad incident. Just a few days prior to my arrest, an unknown man called the Quetta Press Club and told the club’s Vice President, Yaqoob Shahwani, that I had committed a big mistake by handing over the films and photographs to a tribunal.”

Taraki is currently in Islamabad, where he is staying at a guesthouse under a fake name. Fearing his safety, President Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Pervez Shaukat, personally invited him to Islamabad and is supporting his stay there. “In Quetta, I would look at every face and wonder which one of these people would shoot me. That is the level of fear I have been living in. I have been forced to leave my family, my four boys and a girl, to come here,” Tarakai said.

He is no stranger to getting hurt in the line of duty and was injured several time before, including during the September 2010 Meezan Chowk blast in Quetta as well as in the bombing of the building of the Daily Awam, a widely circulated newspaper published from Quetta. “I’ve gotten hurt before, but this is different. Now, my everyday life is in jeopardy and fear dominates my life. I have already left Quetta and people are suggesting I leave Pakistan also. But where will I go? What will I do anywhere else? All I have; all I know how to do – it’s all here.”

Commissions speak

Recently, the enquiry tribunal constituted by the Balochistan government held the FC and the police responsible for the killing of the five foreigners and recommended action against former CCPO Dawood Junejo, Lt Col Faisal Shehzad and two others for using excessive force.

The provincial government had constituted the enquiry tribunal on May 24, headed by a judge of the Balochistan High Court (BHC), Justice Muhammad Hashim Khan Kakar. The tribunal presented its report to the provincial government on June 27, after earlier announcing that it would not make the report public.

However, contrary to the NA commission’s report that said the foreigners were innocent and unarmed and that there was absolutely no evidence they were terrorists or had any designs to carry out attacks, the judicial tribunal’s report says the foreigners were trained terrorists. An unnamed Balochistan government official told journalists: “We have solid information that the foreigners had a dangerous agenda which they intended to follow in the province. They were not carrying [Pakistani] visas. What were they doing in Balochistan, were they not aware of the security situation in Pakistan?”

The tribunal held the FC and policemen responsible not only for excessive use of force but primarily for “their callous stupidity because of which the possibility of unearthing an entire terrorist network will remain shrouded in mystery.”

It is uncertain exactly what the tribunal has based its conclusions on -and it seems unlikely many of these questions will be answered. Some of the report’s contents have been shared with the media, the report in its entirety itself has been declared ‘secret.’

The Balochistan problem

The Kharotabad incident has led to increased infighting between the FC and the police with each blaming the other for the killings. But both are performing an ever-problematic role in Balochistan, mostly because of a skewed division of labour. “Extra-judicial killings, as everyone knows, are a routine matter in the province,” Malik Siraj Akbar, the editor of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper, told this scribe. “The FC’s job is border patrolling and anti-smuggling operations. They aren’t trained to deal with civilians.”

Understandably, the police and Levies forces feel undermined by the FC in Balochistan. Whenever a high-impact event takes police, the government calls in the FC and keeps the police at arm’s length. “Everyone is scared of the FC uniform while no one cares about the police. The integrity and the dignity of other forces, especially the police, are in question because of the FC. These are forces constantly in transition because under every new government their role is reversed. Before Musharraf, 95% of Balochistan was controlled by the police and 5 percent by the Levies. The PPP government has reversed this. Add to this mix the FC, and there is constant confusion about who has what responsibilities and where each force’s jurisdiction ends,” Akbar explained.

What he finds most unconvincing about the narrative on the Kharotabad incident is that the FC took action based on a radio message received from the police. “No analyst or insider with any real understanding of FC-police dynamics in Balochistan will believe this. There is almost no coordination between the FC and police. The police are loathe to inform the FC about anything. The FC is stepping on their toes, undermining their credibility, constantly making them look bad. This is the first time I’ve heard of coordination between the FC and the police. They’re archrivals.”

Indeed, police-FC relations really took a turn for the worse in 2009 when policemen, demanding an increase in salaries and compensation for the killing of policemen, broke into the Governor’s and Chief Minister’s Houses. Looking to the FC to support them, the police felt ever more betrayed when the FC came in to ‘control’ the situation and ‘restore’ law and order and helped arrest tens of policemen. “Since then, coordination between police and FC is completely non-existent. It’s unlikely the police radioed the FC. In fact, lack of coordination between security forces deployed in the province is one of the biggest problems,” said Akbar.

Veteran journalist and Editor-in-chief of the English daily Balochistan Express, Siddiq Baloch, goes even further in blaming the FC for problems in the province. “There has for centuries been an unwritten contract between the Baloch and the Afghans about the inviolability of the border between the two countries. Now, hundreds are crossing the Chaman border daily. You’ll see Afghan governors roaming around here every day. President Karzai’s mother is often here,” Baloch told this scribe. “In the name of strategic depth, the border has been opened and guerillas, weapons, and people without visas, are all coming in. All this is happening while the FC, which should be looking after the borders, is involved in killing people elsewhere, including the Kharotabad victims who were unarmed and voluntarily surrendered to the forces.”

This scribe tried to contact Inspector General of the Frontier Corps Balochistan, Maj Gen Obaidullah Khan, several times but received no response. But recently, talking to a local daily, Khan had said, “I have no problem with encounters as long as they are taking out murderers.”

His statement adequately sums up the attitude of the FC in dealing with what it considers ‘problematic elements’ in the province. Indeed, in its June report, ‘Blinkered Slide into Chaos,’ the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed deep concern over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Balochistan, and named the state agencies, especially the FC, for the sorry state of affairs.

“The Kharotabad incident is part of a larger trigger-happy environment in Balochistan, in which security forces, particularly the FC, enjoy complete freedom from accountability and rule of law,” HRCP General Secretary I. A. Rehman told this scribe. “All authority in the province is vested in the security forces, which enjoy complete impunity. There is a political government in Balochistan in name only. And this is a big part of the problem. Ultimately, insurgencies, disappearances and incidents like the Kharotabad killings – these are issues that require political solutions but it is on the political side that we are the weakest.”

What next?

Rehman recommends action not just against the FC and police personnel involved in the Kharotabad incident but says even more important is reversing the overall pattern of governance in the province whereby the FC, a border-control force, has been given extraordinary license. “Yes, the tribunals and commissions have come out with their reports and fixed responsibility. But tribunals don’t prosecute, governments do, and we know from past record what kind of action the government will take against the perpetrators in this case also.”

As it is, the inquiry commissions have only made a few general, overarching and vague recommendations to address the problems, such as revamping the police force in order to make them self-sufficient in handling major law and order situations.

Farahnaz Ispahani, too, puts the problems of Balochistan in an even larger context – that of a systematic dehumanisation of Pakistanis, which requires a society-wide intervention. “We believe in a ‘might is right’ philosophy here. As a society, we’ve become desensitised,” she told this scribe. “Look around you at everything that’s gone wrong. Saleem Shahzad’s murder. The killing of youth by Rangers in Karachi. Extrajudicial killings in Balochistan. It’s time to become very cohesive, very vigilant lest we slide further into chaos.”

But Siddiq Baloch is doubtful anything will change. “Tribunals will submit reports. And soon, people will forget. The media will forget. In a country where the citizens are lawaris (orphans), how vulnerable do you think foreigners are?” he asks. “Everyone knows who is to blame and who to take action against. But really, what does it matter who was wrong if ultimately, you end up dead.”

Mehreen Zahra-Malik is the Assistant Editor of The News.

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