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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK

World: South Asia

Pakistan police 'execute hundreds'

Human rights activists allege the encounters are staged

By Richard Galpin in Lahore

Pakistan's police force has been fiercely criticised by senior lawyers and human rights activists for what they believe to be a deliberate policy of extra-judicial killings.

They say hundreds of alleged criminals in two of the country's main provinces, Punjab and Sindh, have been executed by policemen.

Watch Richard Galpin's report
According to an investigation by one authoritative newspaper in Pakistan, more than 850 suspected criminals have been killed by the police in Punjab province alone, since the present Muslim League government came to power in 1997.

Punjab is the home province of Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is the provincial Chief Minister.

Deaths in 'encounters'

The killings are reported in the local press as "police encounters" and generally take place late at night in deserted areas where there are unlikely to be any eye-witnesses.

[ image: A witness points to the site of an alleged killing]
A witness points to the site of an alleged killing
Observers say the number being killed in Punjab is now at a level "unprecedented" in the province's history.

In just one week in May, 20 suspected criminals were shot dead in these so-called "encounters", which human rights activists say are thinly-disguised extra-judicial killings.

In many cases the alleged criminals are already under police custody and the explanation given by the police for these bloody "shoot-outs" is frequently the same.

[ image:  ]
The police say the suspects were being transported to the "scene of the crime" to recover illegal weapons or identify hide-outs.

On the way, the police allege that the convoy is attacked by accomplices of the arrested men in an attempt to rescue them and in the resulting shoot-out, all the men in custody are "killed in cross-fire".

Human rights reports

However, Rana Jawad, a senior journalist in Lahore who has covered the Punjab police for many years, says the police are lying.

He says that 95% or even more of police encounters in recent times are absolutely fake.

"We call these encounters cold-blooded murder by the police," she says.

[ image: A woman whose husband was allegedly shot dead by police]
A woman whose husband was allegedly shot dead by police
The charge that the police are frequently involved in extra-judicial killings of suspected criminals, is backed up by recent reports on human rights in Pakistan by both Amnesty International and the US State Department.

"The police committed numerous extra-judicial killings and tortured, abused and raped citizens," says the US State Department report.

The victims of "police encounters" vary from alleged car-thieves, burglars and gangsters to high-profile criminals accused of multiple murders or terrorist attacks.

All three men arrested in connection with the attempted assassination of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in January were killed within days of being detained by the police.

Government denial

A doctor who carries out post-mortem examinations of police encounter victims in Lahore confirmed to the BBC that the police in Punjab are effectively executing suspected criminals.

[ image: Denial: Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat]
Denial: Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat
He said that in 50% of the cases he had dealt with it was clear that the victim had been tied up and then shot at close range.

Likewise, senior Punjab police officials privately admit that at least 50% of police encounters are fake.

"This is obviously a policy and the policy cannot be made at a lower level," says top lawyer Hina Jilani.

The government vehemently denies this.

It says the encounters are not staged and that 240 policemen have been killed in shoot-outs with criminals since February 1997.

But the Punjab Law Minister, Raja Basharat, did tell the BBC that the police have been carrying out extra-judicial killings.

"I agree with you," he said, "but the number is so small that I think with the passage of time and with the emphasis of the government in discouraging it and the way the government is taking action against police officials, this number will diminish."

But lawyers and doctors in Punjab are not satisfied with such assurances and have set up their own committee to investigate the problem.

They hope to bring those responsible to justice.

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