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Updated: November 12, 2011 00:06 IST

The nine lives of 'Karachi's toughest cop'

Declan Walsh
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Police officers display weapons
and ammunition confiscated from
gangsters in Karachi in this April
2010 file photo.
Police officers display weapons and ammunition confiscated from gangsters in Karachi in this April 2010 file photo.

‘Dirty Harry' comes out fighting from the rubble after ninth attempt on life

If the lucky really have nine lives, then Chaudhry Aslam Khan, Karachi's toughest police officer, has exhausted his last.

One morning in September, Mr. Aslam was sleeping when powerful shockwaves rippled through his house. Falling out of bed, he discovered that a Taliban suicide bomber had rammed a van into his front gate, with devastating consequences.

The blast sheared off the entire front of his palatial home. Windows were shattered across Defence, one of the city's most pricey neighbourhoods. And eight people lay dead: policemen, house guards and a mother and child who had been strolling to school.

Stepping through the rubble and blood, Mr. Aslam, who had survived eight previous attempts on his life, helped load the dead and injured into ambulances. (Miraculously, his own family was largely unhurt.) Then he turned to face the media with an extraordinary message of defiance.

“I will bury the attackers right here,” he told the cameras, pointing to the two-metre-deep bomb crater, and vowing to launch his own “jihad” against his assailants. “I didn't know the terrorists were such cowards. Why don't they attack me in the open?” Then, sleepless and smeared in dust, he turned on his heel and went back to work.

A witch's brew

Crime-fighting in Karachi, a sprawling seaside metropolis racked by a witch's brew of violence — ethnic, political, religious, criminal — has never been easy. So far this year, more than 400 people have died in shootings linked to a political power struggle. A surge in Taliban violence pumped the death toll further.

Few know the dark streets as well as Mr. Aslam, a grizzled police veteran of 27 years' experience. Profane, chain-smoking and usually armed with a Glock pistol, he has earned a controversial reputation as Karachi's version of Dirty Harry — the cop who will do whatever it takes to keep the peace.

He has fought on the frontline of the tangled conflicts that have bedevilled Pakistan's commercial capital since the 1980s. He cut his teeth during the vicious street warfare of the 1990s, when police and soldiers fought street battles with militants from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a powerful party.

Later, Mr. Aslam turned his guns on the city's mobsters: racketeers, extortionists and kidnappers, several of whom perished in murky circumstances after being apprehended by Mr. Aslam's men.

Last year, they killed Rehman Dakait, a legendary Baloch gangster, in self defence in what was described as a shootout on the city limits. The dead man's relatives have another version: that he was arrested, tortured and shot in cold blood — circumstances Pakistanis euphemistically refer to as an “encounter.” It was not the first such accusation against Mr. Aslam: he spent 18 months in jail in 2006 after being accused of killing an innocent man; a superior court later cleared him.

Working from an unmarked compound with military-style defences, Mr. Aslam roams Karachi at night in an armoured jeep. Protection comes from a team of heavily armed officers, many of whom resemble the gangsters they are pursuing: like their boss, they do not wear uniforms.

He typically works through the night because, he says, “that's when the criminals are out and about”. He is proud of his gunslinging reputation. He has earned 45 million rupees in government rewards over the years, he says, producing copies of the cheques.

That has made him prey as well as hunter: he has been shot five times during eight assassination attempts, he says. But, he added, God is behind him. “I've seen so much that nothing scares me,” he said. “As a Muslim, my faith tells everyone has to die one day. I'm not afraid of it.” Although flamboyant, Mr. Aslam is by no means unique among Pakistani police. A 2008 report by the International Crisis Group said they had “a well-deserved reputation for corruption, high-handedness and abuse of human rights”. Officers retort that they are under-resourced (Karachi has 26,000 officers for perhaps 18 million people) and labour under a sickly criminal justice system with a conviction rate of five to 10 per cent.

And, in a city where crime, politics and ethnicity are inter-connected, police suffer from massive interference: even junior appointments are controlled by politicians who pressure officers to go easy on their favourite gangsters. “It's a totally politicised force,” admitted Sharifuddin Memon, an adviser to the provincial Home Minister.

Taliban rolling in

Surging Taliban violence, however, has upped the ante dramatically, spilling from the tribal belt along the Afghan border into Pakistan's largest city. Last November, a giant suicide bomb ripped through a police headquarters; in May, militants launched an audacious commando assault on a sensitive navy base.

After September's attack on Mr. Aslam, a Taliban spokesman named five senior officers on its hit list. Since then, senior officers have taken new measures to outrun the suicide bombers: bulletproof cars, moving office without warning, sending out decoy convoys.

Still, few doubt the Taliban will strike again. “We are worried,” said Raja Umer Khattab, a senior officer who recently erected a six-metre-high wall around his home. The militant violence has also bred tensions with the wider community. Mr. Aslam's neighbours in Defence have launched a court petition to force him to move to another area.

“Our police are not like the English ones: when you see them, it means trouble,” said Sami Mustafa, principal of an expensive private school across the street, pointing to classroom windows that had been shattered. “It would be no big loss if he moves.” The petition has elicited a furious reaction. “People should think about the work we do,” said Mr. Khattab. “If our children are being targeted, it is because we are protecting those people.” Mr. Aslam, meanwhile, is back on the beat, unbowed by the threats from militants or neighbours. “I will fight till the last drop of my blood,” he said, puling on a fresh cigarette. “When these people are killing children, I think it is right for us to kill them. They shouldn't even be called Muslims.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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