Meher Ahmadjan


KARACHI, Pakistan — A top Karachi police commander known for harsh tactics has been forced out after what he called a shootout with the Taliban ended in the death of an aspiring model popular on social media, triggering days of protests.


The commander, former Senior Superintendent Rao Anwar, had long been prominent in the fight against militancy in the northern neighborhoods of Karachi he oversaw. Those areas were once notorious for being practically run by the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups, who inflicted heavy tolls on the security forces until 2015.


Campaigns by the superintendent’s forces, along with paramilitary groups like the Sindh Rangers, began turning the balance of power around. But the effort was haunted by accusations of extrajudicial killings, as it began looking as much like an indiscriminate crackdown on ethnic Pashtun communities as a targeted campaign against the militants who sheltered among them. The commander’s methods, in particular, began coming under intense criticism.


An episode this month may end up being the final straw. On Jan. 13, Superintendent Anwar released a statement claiming that he and his officers had thwarted a deadly attack on Karachi’s airport, killing four unidentified militants who he said had a history of killing “police, Rangers and army personnel.”


Three days later, the family of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old shopkeeper with dreams of becoming a model, received his bullet-riddled body from the authorities, along with the news that he had been among the supposed militants shot by the police.


Mr. Mehsud and his family are part of a community of hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns who used to live in the tribal areas of Pakistan and were displaced to Karachi over years of violence with the Taliban and other militant groups that dominated some of those places.


Mr. Mehsud’s relatives insist that he has never had militant ties and was targeted just because he was Pashtun. “We’re still in shock about what happened,” said Manzoor Ahmed, a family friend and social activist. “His entire family is trying to understand why this happened to Naqeebullah.”


An internal police investigation into the supposed Taliban shootout supports the family’s side of events, finding the superintendent’s account of the clash “doubtful” and uncovering no apparent links between Mr. Mehsud and any militant group.


What he did have, however, was a Facebook page with a large following, fans of the glamorous photos he posted as he tried to develop a modeling career. When news of Mr. Mehsud’s death was posted there, it spread quickly.


Outraged fans and activists rejected the characterization of Mr. Mehsud as a militant, claiming his innocence with posts under #JusticeforNaqeeb. Protesters took to the streets of Karachi in the days after, demanding that the commander be removed.


Superintendent Anwar’s crusading style and triumphant announcements of terrorists killed or arrested had made him a regular on Karachi television over the years. But for just as long, his name and claims had become bywords for suspicious police encounters. Though he has been suspended several times since joining the force in 1984, nothing has ever stuck, and he has inevitably resumed his post after a few days or weeks.


This time seems different. The superintendent was dismissed outright on Saturday. And after he failed to appear for a mandatory interview before the National Commission for Human Rights on Monday, the local police said they were preparing to issue an arrest warrant if he skips another session.


On Tuesday, the former superintendent was turned away by immigration officers at Rawalpindi’s international airport — roughly 900 miles north of Karachi — when he tried to take a flight to Dubai, officials said. In a long statement he released by WhatsApp afterward, Mr. Anwar appeared to put the blame for Mr. Mehsud’s death on Pakistan’s weak judicial system, in effect saying that he did what he had to do.


“Karachi, don’t forget the blasts. Karachi, don’t forget the target killings,” he wrote. “If you take that into consideration, then you know that some of the work that should have been done by judges was done by officers like Rao Anwar.”


Mr. Anwar may be the biggest focus of criticism right now, but concerns about the security’s forces methods are far from uncommon. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report found several police officers “openly admitted to the practice of false or faked ‘encounter killings,’ in which the police stage an armed exchange to kill an individual already in custody.” By the Karachi police’s own estimation, “184 criminals and 7,373 terrorists” were killed in roughly 480 police encounters in 2017 alone.


“This isn’t a recent phenomenon,” said Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank based in Islamabad. Mr. Rana said it had been difficult to get successful convictions of militants through the courts, leaving the police and other security forces more likely to simply shoot to kill. “The easiest solution to that problem for agencies is extrajudicial killings,” he said.


Though many law enforcement agencies in Karachi stand accused of similar tactics to Mr. Anwar’s, they appear to be responding to public outrage by closing ranks against him.


“This is an opportunity to deter extrajudicial and unjust killings, and for law enforcement to correct itself,” said the head of Karachi’s counterterrorism department, Sanaullah Abbasi. “It’s an opportunity to give justice to the people.”


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