ISLAMABAD - Men in plain clothes claiming to be from a Pakistani intelligence agency ordered the immediate closure Sunday afternoon of a contemporary art installation in Karachi depicting extra-judicial killings by police.
When the artist and some prominent human rights activists tried to hold a press conference to condemn the closure, a city official who introduced himself as the director general of parks, Karachi, barged in, and removed all the microphones from various media outlets.
Activist Jibran Nasir, who had organized the press conference and was broadcasting it live on his Facebook page, posted the ensuing altercation on social media.
Nasir also blamed the closure of the art installation on Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence, claiming it was trying to protect a police officer with alleged close links to the security establishment.
The parks official told journalists the installation was not what the city administration signed up for.
“We gave a park to the (Karachi) biennale for the exhibition of art. . . they made a graveyard here. . . this is not art, this is vandalism,” Afaq Mirza said.
Mirza was referring to small pillars topped with wilted metal flowers that the artist, Adeela Suleman, created to depict the 444 victims of encounters with one police officer, Rao Anwar.
However, when pressed by journalists on who ordered the closure of the exhibition, Mirza said it was not the city administration.
“No, the (civil) administration did not close it down in the morning. The people who were here in the morning were, I think, from the fifth corps,” Mirza said at the press conference. The fifth corps of Pakistan’s military is responsible for defending Karachi and most of Sindh province in case of war.
The Pakistan military’s media relations wing refused to comment.
The installation, “The Killing Fields of Karachi,” illustrates the story of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old aspiring model from Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, who was killed in a police encounter.
A subsequent high-level police inquiry committee found the encounter to be “staged.”
Mehsud’s death caused an uproar when members of his family and friends insisted he was an aspiring model and not a terrorist as claimed by police. It gave rise to an ethnic Pashtun movement called Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, or PTM, which carried out a weeks’ long protest in the capital, Islamabad.
Anwar, the police officer facing trial for Mehsud’s killing, was known as an “encounter-specialist” and was alleged to have carried out hundreds of extra-judicial killings in fake police encounters.
Human rights activists have raised suspicions about these encounters, pointing out that no policeman ever got injured and the alleged suspects always ended up dead.
Pakistan’s oldest English daily newspaper, Dawn, reported that Anwar did not face a single inquiry despite having allegedly slain 444 people, until the case of Mehsud grabbed headlines and forced authorities to act.
Anwar maintains his innocence. He retired from the force earlier this year and is out on bail. However, his name remains on an exit control list, barring him from leaving the country while the trial is ongoing.
“One thing I learnt today is art has power and it can really move people. That is why they got so scared that they shut it down within two hours,” artist Suleman, said.
Suleman’s husband is Faisal Siddiqui, the lawyer of Mehsud’s father, Mohammad Khan.
Anwar is alleged to have friends in powerful places. The leader of Pakistan Peoples Party, a major political party in Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, defended him when he was initially accused, calling him “a brave kid,” although he later retracted his statement.
Activists claim Anwar was used by intelligence agencies for extra-judicial killings.
“Men are airlifted from as far away as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas - a former semi-autonomous region in northwestern Pakistan) and brought here (Karachi) for him to dispatch,” Dawn reported, quoting an unnamed police official.
The newspaper quoted another unnamed senior police official saying that even the police command was afraid of him due to “close connections with criminal political bosses and within the security establishment.”