The battle against crime and terror cannot be won without witness protection
By Naimat Khan
On January 13, 2011, a young news reporter was assassinated on his way back from work in the North Nazimabad neighborhood of Karachi. Gunmen shot 28-year-old Wali Khan Babar five times in his face and neck for carrying out his professional duties.
The case was heard by four judges in three courts until there was a conviction. Meanwhile, two policemen, an informer, an investigation officer’s brother, a lawyer and a witness had also been killed. The first lawyer in the case fled to the US and applied for an asylum because of death threats.
“Each time they would kill a person related to our case, we would lose all hope,” said Murtaza Babar, Wali’s older brother. “But soon, our determination to send the killers of our beloved brother to the gallows would help us muster courage again.”
In March 2014, a little more than three years after the murder, a special anti-terrorism court sentenced four men to life in prison, while two absconders were given a death sentence in absentia. One of them, Faisal Mahmud aka Faisal Mota, was later arrested from the MQM headquarters in Karachi during a predawn raid on March 11, the paramilitary Rangers said.
But Murtaza says his family fought the case all alone with no support from the state. This is the second case of a journalist’s murder in Pakistan in which there was a conviction. The first was the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
“Now they are going into appeal, and it is hard for the government to find a prosecutor,” he told me.
Policemen and lawyers say there are hundreds of case in which suspects threaten, intimidate or lure witnesses to change their statement.
In one case, a man was reluctant to become a complainant in his son’s murder
“The safety of witnesses is not a new problem, but the Wali Khan Babar case highlights the extent of the issue,” says Raja Umar Khattab, a senior counter-terrorism police official. “In all terrorism and sectarian cases, witnesses need more security.”
In one case, he says, a man was reluctant to become a complainant in his son’s murder. The state had to become a party. “If we want to bring murderers and terrorists to the book, we will have to adopt measures to restore people’s trust in the law, so that they are no longer scared of criminals.”
On September 21, unidentified gunmen killed police sub-inspector Muhammad Ishtiaq Awan, who was a witness in the murder of another sub-inspector Manuj Kumar in 2010. They key suspect was Tahir Hussain Minhas, who according to Raja Umar Khattab, is an Al Qaeda commander detained by the police in the Safoora bus shooting case.
Two weeks before Ishtiaq’s assassination, on September 8, unidentified assailants killed Ghulam Abbas, the driver of Sabeen Mahmud and an eyewitness in her murder.
Last month, on October 20, two special public prosecutors in the Safoora bus shooting case resigned because they feared their lives were in danger.
“Although the debate that began after a series of killings related to the Wali Khan Babar murder case led the PPP government in Sindh to pass a witness protection law, the law has not been implemented in two years,” according to Shams Keerio, a journalist covering the Sindh government and the provincial legislature.
A police officer says all preparations have been made and law is with the home department, which is prolonging its enforcement.
Keerio is concerned that the delay is deliberate.
“Promulgating the law was a good thing, but its sincere implementation and an awareness campaign are equally important,” says Asad Iqbal Butt, the vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Other laws passed by the provincial government are also waiting to be enforced, such as the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act of 2013, he adds.
On October 8, Keerio had reported that the Sindh Home Department had objected to a request for Rs 100 million for the Witness Protection Unit.
“The Sindh police have done their homework and are waiting for a notification that sets up a Witness Protection Unit,” a police officer said. He asked not to be named because he didn’t want to be seen as criticizing the Home Department. “We have received some of the money we had requested for that purpose,” he said.
The law includes the provision of a new identity for witnesses by NADRA, and the relocation of the witnesses and their families, who the state would provide accommodation and means of livelihood. It also ensures protection for vulnerable judges, prosecutors and police officials investigating criminal cases.
The first provision would be hard in most cases, if not impossible, Raja Umar Khattab says. “Such witness protection programs are more effective in societies where witnesses live in elementary families that can be relocated, and not in a joint family system,” he says.
Pakistan Bar Council vice chairman Azam Nazir Tarar told me there is no special witness protection law at the federal level.
Last month, a high-profile case highlighted a different problem. All the witnesses against influential suspect Mustafa Kanju – who was accused of killing a 16-year-old passerby when he fired his gun during a quarrel with two women in another car – retracted their statements. An anti-terrorism court had to free him.
The additional advocate general told the Supreme Court during a Suo Motu hearing of the case that the witnesses had been bribed.
The writer is a freelance journalist