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Friday, June 8, 2007

A Surge in Kidnappings for Ransom in Karachi

KARACHI: Surge in kidnapping for ransom cases

By S. Raza Hassan

KARACHI, June 7: The rapid spread of cellular technology in Pakistan is regarded as a sign of development but it has also facilitated criminal groups. Law-enforcement agencies have linked easy access to cell phones with the declining rates of success in solving kidnapping for ransom cases.

In a city where street crime and violence are active threats, kidnapping is nevertheless amongst the most terrifying threats to personal safety. Nearly ten years after a 56-day kidnapping ordeal, 30-year-old Moazzam Saleem has not been able to put the incident behind him.

“I could not sleep for weeks after my release and suffered frequent flashbacks, even though the kidnappers treated me well and even let me have a television,” he told Dawn. Police and officials of the Citizen’s Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) freed Mr Saleem from a room measuring 6 by 8 feet, where he was held for nearly two months.

Kidnapping for ransom can take place at any time, in any locality — residents of Defence and Korangi are at equal risk. Not all victims are as fortunate as Mr Saleem, a case in point being the fate of two young boys kidnapped recently. Their decaying bodies were recovered from Korangi last week and the performance of law-enforcement agencies has subsequently come under criticism.

Prior to 2003, there was a 75 per cent success rate in cases of kidnapping for ransom dealt with by the CPLC. Success rate in this regard is defined as those cases where the victim’s release is secured without the payment of ransom and the kidnappers are arrested. In 2007, this rate has fallen to 69 – 70 per cent. In many of the remaining 30 per cent of the cases, the victims are released upon payment of ransom.

CPLC chief Sharifuddin Memon blames the dropping success rate on the unregulated sale of cell phone Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM) cards. Mobile phones are of particular importance to kidnappers making ransom calls, said a law-enforcement official, since land lines, wireless phones and even public call booths are traceable.

Cellular technology, now so easily accessible, was a rarity before 2003.

“During our investigations, we have come across kidnapping gangs in possession of hundreds of SIM cards,” a law-enforcement official told Dawn. Additional Sindh IG Niaz Siddiqui is on record saying that at least 0.75 million SIMs in the country have been issued on fake identity cards. According to SITE Town Police Officer ASP Sohail Zafar Chattah, even when the police manage to get hold of such a SIM card, it is not of much use since only a couple of numbers have been dialled on them and there is no way of identifying the owner. He related a recent incident when a car carrying armed men hit another car in Defence (DHA). The men snatched another vehicle and escaped, but left their cell phones in the damaged car. Police tried to trace them through the SIM cards but no useful lead could be developed, said Mr Chattah.

Working in conjunction, the CPLC and AVCC said to have become experts in solving such cases and almost all kidnapping for ransom cases are referred to them. However, the new head of the AVCC is reportedly having trouble adjusting to the unit’s modus operandi and coordination between the two bodies has suffered.

At least three gangs involved in kidnapping for ransom are known to be operating in rural and urban Sindh.

One of these is composed primarily of Afghans or Pakhtuns, has at least one female member and kidnaps children from Karachi. According to Mr Memon of the CPLC, “this gang has so far kidnapped four children from the Metroville area and different Pakhtun pockets.” He said that the victims are taken to the tribal belt and released in the Dargai area after a Rs500,000 to Rs1.2 million ransom has been paid. “We have done a lot of homework on this gang and are in touch with the NWFP Home Department,” said Mr Memon, adding that an unsuccessful raid has also been carried out in this regard.

According to remarks made by the city police chief on the case sheet, “the AVCC should show their performance in order to prove their existence.”

Another gang is headed by a man known as Rano Chano. It is based in interior Sindh, the main area of it’s operations, but occasionally kidnaps businessmen from Karachi and takes them to hide-outs in interior Sindh, said Mr Memon. According to a senior police official, some members of this gang were arrested five months ago but this has not deterred the rest of the gang.

A man known as Mashooq Brohi has become notorious in such cases. Between 2003 and 2007, 17 FIRs were registered against him in connection with kidnappings in Karachi. He is believed to have hide-outs in the difficult terrain of Hub, Balochistan, and according to the CPLC, he has been in league with Arshad Pappu for the past two years. Brohi is said to have gone underground following a Gadap Town encounter involving the now defunct Lyari Task Force (LTF). It was discovered that an innocent man was killed in the encounter after being mistaken for Brohi. The incident landed LTF personnel in jail and led to the disbanding of the unit, but also forced Brohi into hiding.

Cases of kidnapping of ransom are displaying a worrying trend, particularly since ‘short-term kidnapping’ in Karachi is still being reported. This method involves armed men holding up a vehicle and making the victim drive around the city while he arranges his ransom. The victim is either taken to an ATM machine to withdraw cash to ransom himself with, or is forced to call his family.

Meanwhile, cases of kidnappings involving families returning from the airport, particularly in the early morning, are also being reported.

Official statistics say that the maximum number of kidnapping for ransom cases occurred in 1990, when 79 such cases were reported. The rate dropped to 45 in 1991 and continued to decrease during the next ten years. However, the figures jumped in 2004 and 2005, when 39 cases were reported each year.

According to the records, a total of 441 people have been kidnapped for ransom between January 1990 and April 2007. Of these, 295 cases were solved without the payment of ransom while 146 victims were released after payment of ransom. The data shows that during this period, 146 kidnapping gangs have been arrested.

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