Judgment Day


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After recent years of self-inflicted brutality, barbarism, and bloodshed in Karachi, the Supreme Court finally weighs in.

It had been Pakistan’s pride and joy, its shining capital, its economic engine, its multicultural Petri dish. But as it had during the 1990s, Karachi has once again become a basket case of a city. Hundreds of its residents are killed each month in easily-avoidable violence, and yet the city somehow miraculously trucks along. The last dregs of our collective hope for the city of 18 million turned to the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s hearings on Karachi. Its verdict brings hope.

On Oct. 6, the Supreme Court issued its 156-page combined verdict in Suo Motu Case No. 16 of 2011 “regarding law and order situation in Karachi,” and Constitution Petition No. 61 of 2011, Watan Party & Another v. the Federation of Pakistan & Others. The judgment starts with an obvious preamble (“Islam abhors [the] unlawful killing of innocent people and strictly prohibits it”) and moves on to the Constitutional right of citizens to live in peace, and the historical, economic, and cultural significance of one of the world’s largest cities. The judgment spells out the problem in all its harrowing, gory details while bemoaning the “passivity” of the government in being unable or unwilling to find a sustainable solution for it.
The ruling cites the following causes of violence in Karachi: “Recent demographic changes; ethnicity, sectarianism and factional infighting; clashes between land and [extortion] mafias; deep mistrust among ethnic groups; easy access to illicit weapons and misuse of arms licenses.” This violence, enabled and perpetrated by criminal gangs affiliated with parties across the political spectrum, has manifested itself in abductions for ransom, target killings and ethnic cleansing, arson, street crimes, damage to property and infrastructure, capital flight—turning Karachi into “a threat to the very stability of Pakistan.” The judgment notes that over the last month alone, some 306 people have been killed in Karachi and some 159 shot. Just this year so far some 1,310 have perished.
Is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Karachi adequate? Given the scale of the crisis perhaps not, but it’s a good start. There is some irony inherent in the verdict, reflecting the complicated state of a city under siege. While it, rightly, attributes Karachi’s “unimaginable brutalities” to the turf war between political parties, it also leaves the fate of Karachi in the hands of the very same players, asking them to protect the city from future bloodshed and politically-sponsored crimes. What does the court expect from a government which comprises political parties that have, by the court’s own admission, played their respective dark roles in coldblooded murder, torture, extortion, and other grave crimes in Karachi? In ruling in the manner in which it has, the court has upheld the doctrine of separation of powers. It seems to be saying: We understand the problem, but we admit that it’s not ours to fix.
But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Karachi is not exactly spoiled for choice. The administrative control of our largest city cannot be handed over to the Army, as some have radically proposed, and it cannot suffer through another 1992-style mop-up operation that will yield only more death and mayhem. Stability, economic growth, and a sustainable peace are only attainable through a political process. And the judgment calls things as it sees them, without apparent fear or favor.
Even the most vociferous critics of the Supreme Court’s populist tendencies cannot deny the indisputable public importance of this case, which has pounded through the wall of willful silence that stood in the way of debating Karachi’s troubles. This was an opportunity to summon a wide range of voices, and it was availed. Law-enforcement and intelligence chiefs, human rights activists, politicians, victims of violence all came on record to articulate their knowledge of the problem. Never before had the enemies of Karachi been so publicly exposed, never before was this kind of pressure put on political parties to force their killers into sheathing their weapons.
Strife-torn Karachi is ruled by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. In the past, people (Imran Khan in 2007) who have been scathingly critical of the party have not been allowed to even set foot in the city. This is a megalopolis where criminal cases are not worth the paper they’re registered on. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry knows this first hand. When he was the country’s “deposed” top judge and arrived in Karachi to speak at a bar association event on May 12, 2007, we saw bullets fly on live television. The violence we have recently become so insouciant toward is a result of other political parties—chiefly the Awami National Party with the quiet assistance of the Pakistan Peoples Party—trying to reclaim ground lost to the MQM during the Musharraf years. Never mind that all three parties are coalition partners in the federal and Sindh governments.
There are those who argue that if enough people took former Sindh home minister Zulfiqar Mirza’s route, the unspoken rule of having to mollycoddle the MQM to survive in Karachi could gradually be broken. But Mirza’s allegations—no matter how loud, true or well known—focused on a single party and were viewed as the claims of a man scorned. The court has named and shamed several political parties for nurturing and patronizing criminals. With the court ruling, the government will have to force the monsters that stalk the ill-fated city by the sea to rethink their nefarious designs. In a welcome move, the PPP-led Sindh government has now outlawed its ironically-named, Mirza-driven Aman (“Peace”) Committee.
The court says it cannot ban any political party, and states that only the government and political players (read: not the Army) can solve the Karachi puzzle. The ruling places great emphasis on protecting the city’s economy in the face of flare-ups and making it more participatory. It calls for action against usurpation of land and property, the timely appointment of antiterrorism officials, depoliticization of the police bureaucracy, deweaponization of the city, opening up of no-go areas, compensation to the families of the slain, investigations into the murders and disappearances of law-enforcement personnel who participated in the 1992 and 1996 operations, formation of an independent agency to probe the Karachi killings. The court has also asked the National Database and Registration Authority and police to locate all foreigners illegally ensconced in the city. And it has ordered the formation of a high-powered commission, led by the Sindh High Court chief justice, to supervise across-the-board action against those who disturb the peace. Pakistan’s chief justice will personally be monitoring all progress.
No doubt depoliticizing the police and deweaponizing the city as well as opening up no-go areas are massive, controversial undertakings. But the court judgment has given political parties an opening to sincerely begin work toward disassociating their politics from criminality and from other parties who continue to support criminal cartels. The government must step up. A justice system in which the final court of appeal is forced to function as the court of first instance and to fill the shoes of the executive branch as a matter of routine is not sustainable.
Sadly, target killings resurfaced in Karachi even as the chief justice was reading out his judgment. Two of the parties (MQM and ANP) involved in much of the violence embraced the judgment despite its accusations against them while most others objected to the accusations of criminality. This is not a good omen. Political parties and those in charge of them must heed the words of the Supreme Court and listen to their conscience, however faint-voiced it may have become. The PPP, MQM and ANP are all secular, progressive parties who champion Jinnah’s Pakistan. Can they please start by bringing Jinnah’s city to order?
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