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Pakistan ransom kidnappings 'big business'

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad

Sahil Saeed
Sahil Saeed was taken by robbers after a raid on his grandmother's home

The kidnapping of young Briton Sahil Saeed has focused the international spotlight on one of Pakistan's more murky secrets.

Kidnapping for ransom is one of the most profitable and widespread criminal enterprises in the country. But it is one that has, until now, been fairly well hidden.

Five-year-old Sahil was kidnapped after armed men broke into his family home in the town of Jhelum in central Punjab province.

Since then, amid huge media attention, the police have been making an all-out effort to recover him.

Those efforts at the moment appear to have reached an impasse.

'Mistake'

"The main thing to do at the moment is not to lose hope," says Jameel Yusuf, one of Pakistan's top anti-kidnapping experts.

Mr Yusuf is the former head of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a unique joint venture between officers and citizens in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi.

The committee was formed in 1990 to tackle abductions in collaboration with government security agencies.

Whoever made the decision to go public made a mistake
Jameel Yusuf

While the CPLC has broadened its functions, kidnapping for ransom has remained its forte.

Mr Yusuf has been involved in the investigation of more than 400 cases, most of which have been solved.

He was instrumental in the investigation into the kidnapping of US journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by his captors, and played a key role in the arrest of the culprits.

Of the Sahil case, Mr Yusuf says: "Whoever made the decision to go public made a mistake.

"In a kidnapping for ransom, the best thing you can do is to keep the matter as quiet as possible.

"This goes doubly for a child, who is much more difficult to handle than an adult."

Akila Naqqash
The best person to speak to the kidnappers may be Sahil's mother

Mr Yusuf says it is clear from the facts that these are not professional kidnappers - the gangs who make abduction for ransom a regular trade in Pakistan.

It is a big business. In 2009, 480 people were officially recognised as having been kidnapped for ransom in Pakistan.

But the figure is misleading - as police try to separate kidnapping for ransom from simple kidnappings, which are related to what they term family incidents.

"The police often do this to lower crime statistics," says Mr Yusuf.

"A person is listed as having been 'kidnapped' if a family member, or a close friend or associate, is involved.

"The police only register the case as being 'kidnapping for ransom' if a known gang of professional kidnappers is involved."

Such gangs abound in Pakistan.

They are especially active in the industrial regions of the Punjab and in Karachi.

The targets are mostly rich businessmen and entrepreneurs or their family members.

The gangs often have a threefold set-up.

One team stakes out and kidnaps the target and then hands the victim to a middleman.

The middleman then transfers the person to a third party, who keeps the victim until a successful bargain is made.

This is usually in an area such as Pakistan's tribal region, where police have no control.

Death penalty

While such organised gangs play a large role in Pakistan's kidnapping industry, they are not the only ones involved.

Many smaller gangs or petty criminals are also active, especially in small rural communities or within the baradari (trade-based community) network of the Punjab.

The victims are usually known, or even related, to the culprits.

Mr Yusuf says "kidnapping" carries a penalty of up to life in jail, whereas "kidnapping for ransom" can carry the death penalty, which is often enforced.

If the cases of "kidnapping for ransom" in 2009 were below 500 in all of Pakistan, "kidnap" cases in Punjab alone were more than 11,000 in the same year.

Mr Yusuf says even these figures are not comprehensive.

Jameel Yusuf
The key is to communicate with the men - to tell them that the child they are holding is a loved person, not a commodity
Jameel Yusuf

"Many cases are not reported as the families are not confident about the police and prefer to deal with the culprits themselves. After all, it is literally a matter of life and death."

Mr Yusuf thinks the criminals in the Sahil case are probably of the "kidnap" type.

"They are probably robbers or some other type of criminal who did not know what they were getting into.

"For this reason, I would be even more concerned for the security of the child."

Mr Yusuf says two things need to be done immediately.

"First, step back and retreat from the publicity, which will have really scared the culprits.

"The police need to be told to keep a very low profile around the residence.

"The key is to communicate with the men - to tell them that the child they are holding is a loved person, not a commodity.

"The best person to do that would probably be the mother."

This could be done by circulating a a new phone number that will only be answered by her within their immediate circle.

Mr Yusuf says: "As there is a strong possibility of someone within the larger family or community being involved, the news is likely to reach the men.

"This has to be done quickly - as every passing moment is a threat to the child's wellbeing."



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Country profile: Pakistan
14 May 11 |  Country profiles

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