Five policemen raise their guns and fire dozens of times into a parked car at point-blank range in Pakistan. Then they reach inside, around the bodies of the dead, to pull out three crying children. The footage filmed by shocked witnesses to the killing went viral, sending Prime Minister Imran Khan scrambling to quell anger over a police culture of impunity that is now being threatened by social media.
Thousands have been gunned down in recent years across Pakistan in so-called “encounter killings”—incidents where suspects allegedly resist arrest, are slain, then later identified as terrorists to boost statistics. This latest “encounter” saw a family gunned down in broad daylight in Sahiwal last month, leaving four people dead including two parents and their teenage daughter.
Three children survived the incident, including nine-year-old Umair Khalil who later told journalists that police shot at the family as their father offered the cops a bribe, pleading to let them go.
“My father told them to take our money and not to shoot their guns. But they started firing,” Umair said in the video broadcast widely across Pakistan news outlets and social media.
Police initially defended their response saying terrorists with links to the Islamic State group were in the car using the family as a human shield. But this “encounter” was fundamentally different to others—it was filmed on phones and the videos posted online.
Authorities have since backtracked as furor grew with the prime minister vowing to mete out “exemplary punishment” to the guilty. Five officers were hit with murder charges and protests erupted in Lahore.
“People… know that a video they make from their cell phone can have far more impact than the camera of a news channel,” said digital rights activist Haroon Baloch. “Had the nearby people not filmed the Sahiwal incident, nobody would have noticed the extrajudicial killing,” he added.
The incident is the latest instance of how phones are radically changing Pakistanis’ relationship with power. During elections over the summer, a host of videos went viral, showing angry voters hounding elected representatives over their failure to serve their constituents. And it’s not just in Pakistan.
In the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement coalesced as outrage exploded following a series of viral videos allegedly showing police killing black Americans, bringing greater scrutiny to racial profiling and pushing some police departments to outfit patrol officers with body cams.
The Sahiwal incident comes almost exactly a year after a similar killing of a young social media star in Karachi ignited an ethnic rights movement by the country’s beleaguered Pashtun community. The movement it spawned—the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement—has been largely sustained by social media and videos captured on mobiles, piling even more pressure on authorities. But the killings continue, with analysts saying reforms are needed to challenge impunity in the police ranks.
“It’s a culture of the police in Pakistan to kill people and make it look it like an encounter,” says Mehdi Hasan—chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Data compiled by HRCP showed that 4,803 people were killed in these “encounters” in Pakistan within the past three years alone. “The police need to be properly trained if such incidents are to be avoided in the future,” Hasan added.
Security analyst Amir Rana however argued that increased police accountability and judicial reform were key to cementing lasting change. “This culture has existed in the police force for decades,” Rana explained, saying Pakistan’s mammoth backlog of legal cases overloading its judiciary was part of the problem. “[Police] want quick results and they try to avoid… lengthy legal procedures which leads to staging encounters.”