Robbed at gunpoint: Citizens vulnerable despite Rangers operation

Karachi's streets (Credit:
Karachi’s streets
KARACHI, Aug 17: For Sana Sheikh, the scene is all too familiar; a furtive figure approaches the car at a traffic light, the advance timed perfectly between the switch from red to green. He leans in and taps a menacing weapon on the window, giving her husband no choice but to comply. With a gun fixed to his temple, the young couple quickly hands over mobile phones, cash and jewellery.

Ms Sheikh has been robbed at gunpoint on three occasions –– twice at the same spot in Clifton Block 7 and the most recent time at the traffic light on the Khayaban-i-Shaheen and Khayaban-i-Bahria intersection. “We have given everything each time,” she says, grateful that they have remained unhurt.

Unfortunately, Mehreen Ali Shah was brutally gunned down. The 48-year-old mother of two was shot fatally on DHA’s 26th street on the night of Aug 4, as she headed home after a meal at a Phase VIII restaurant. Ms Shah is among scores of people shot dead by robbers in the metropolis in the past eight months.

According to data collected by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, around 29 people have been killed by robbers in different areas from January to June 2015. The number of phones stolen from January to July is estimated at over 21,000.

As muggings show no signs of letting up, police mull new strategy to tackle street crime
“On average, 50 people are killed during street crimes in the provincial capital each year,” a senior police officer tells Dawn.

Police admit an alarming rise in street crime and mention several reasons for their apparent failure to curb it, with lack of manpower cited as a major reason.

“There is only one police mobile with two policemen for patrolling in Phase VIII, Defence, where the murder of the woman took place,” says Darakhshan police station SHO Ghulam Hussain Pirzado.

Mr Pirzado, who was removed after the killing of Ms Shah, said the police mobile on that day was deployed for the security of business tycoon Malik Riaz.

“There are a total of 100 policemen for Darakhshan police. Of them only 70 perform their jobs and the rest are deployed on guard duty etc,” the former SHO discloses. Among them, 40 policemen perform their duty in the morning shift while 30 are assigned to night duty.

“This number of policemen can hardly be declared sufficient for 400,000 to 500,000 residents living in Phase V to Phase VIII [jurisdiction of Darakhshan police].”

Should Rangers confront street crime?

While the Rangers report weekly gains made in the Karachi operation launched in September 2013, there has been no respite for citizens when it comes to street crime.

There is a growing realisation among law enforcement agencies to shift the focus of the operation towards street crime, as the operation has yet to prove effective against the bane of muggings.

“This is partly because law enforcement agencies’ main focus has been to control major crimes such as targeted killings, kidnapping for ransom and extortion,” says the DIG (administration) Karachi, Sultan Ali Khowaja.
Mr Khowaja, who recently also served as DIG CIA, says the focus on alleviating political crime has paid off. “For six months, there has been no case of kidnapping for ransom. Extortion has become nil,” he boasts.

But he acknowledges that the attention must shift to street crime. “Initiatives are being taken and impact will be visible soon,” the senior police officer says.

New chief of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) Zubair Habib agrees that other crimes have ‘drastically’ decreased but feels there has been no decline in street crime. Citing ‘reported crime data’, the CPLC head says 17,000 mobile phones were either snatched or stolen in 2014 from January to July. In the current year, 22,000 mobile phones have been snatched for the same period.

“Street crimes, especially muggings, have not dropped partly because it is easy,” says Mr Habib. He says there are at least 100 points where traffic is congested, allowing criminals to swoop on and loot their victims in a jam. He also feels there are deserted areas –– such as in Defence where Ms Shah was shot dead – where it is easy to commit crime due to absence of police.

Two-pronged strategy

“Karachi police are going to sign a MoU (memorandum of standing) with NGO Voice of Karachi very soon to establish kiosks at these 60 places. Each will be supported by CCTVs and strong deployment of police,” says Mr Khowaja.

As a first step, a kiosk will be set up at the old ‘Submarine Chowrangi’ on Ch Khaliq-uz-Zaman Road near Gizri. At least 16 CCTV cameras will be installed, with two motorcycle squads of police that will perform their duty round the clock, especially during ‘peak hours’.

Each such kiosk is expected to cost up to Rs5 million.
For the second initiative, police are negotiating with cellular companies and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to register the IMEI number of each subscriber which will enable them to block a snatched mobile phone immediately after an incident is reported. A few meetings have taken place to discuss this, he says.

“This initiative should be supported by a legal framework and be made part of cyber crime,” suggests Sultan Khowaja. He says past police action against Karachi’s electronic market to curb the sale of stolen and snatched mobile phones was not effective as it was not supported by a legal framework to punish such elements.

The CPLC chief, too, refers to a recent meeting with AIG police Mushtaq Ahmed Mahar, where the two discussed a strategy to tackle street crime and proposed a solution to improve traffic flow with a ‘surveillance system’ which makes snatching. A proposal to set up a dedicated cell to deal with street crime is also under consideration.

But as law enforcement agencies scratch their heads and vow reform, citizens are left at the mercy of armed thugs operating brazenly throughout the city.

“I have been mugged but luckily they only took away my phone and some cash, and couldn’t snatch my wallet with ID documents and credit cards,” says Jamila Ali, wondering how she should securely carry these documents. “I have started keeping a cheaper phone to give to the muggers but I worry they will catch on.”

On Facebook group Haalat Updates –– an online forum where subscribers share security related concerns –– two muggings were reported in PECHS Block 2 in a span of two days. The CCTV footage of a similar mugging outside an apartment building on Islamia College road near Jail Chowrangi elicited sarcastic responses, betraying the frustration of hapless citizens from all walks of life.

Commenting on the ease with which an armed youth secures an unsuspecting biker’s phone by showing a pistol, one member writes: “It’s very casual, just like someone is holding up a cigarette to ask for a lighter…”

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2015

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