LAHORE, Pakistan—When he first heard gunshots, Raza Rumi, a prominent Pakistani TV anchor and columnist, was checking Twitter. He thought the pops were celebrations at a nearby wedding, until he looked up from his cell phone to see the telltale flash of a submachine gun. "I said, 'Oh shit, they've come for me.' "
The vocal critic of religious extremist groups, who frequently went on air to decry the killing of Shiite Muslims in the predominantly Sunni country, narrowly escaped his would-be assassination in Lahore. His driver did not. "We all have to die one day," Rumi tweeted that day, March 28. "But my brave driver, a sole breadwinner of his family, was sprayed with bullets meant for me. Why? Why?"
Rumi and the victims of other terrorist attacks and targeting killings in Pakistan might finally start getting some of those answers.
Inside the first state-of-the-art forensics lab in Pakistan, experts helped local authorities match the empty bullet casings from the crime scene with the Kalashnikov rifles and guns used by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The evidence linked militants from the group, which targets Shiite Muslims, to the attack on Rumi's car—and to a string of 19 other shootings in the Punjab province. The gunmen were arrested, and, faced with tangible forensic evidence, they confessed.
This major breakthrough, officials say, would not have been possible before the establishment of the Punjab Forensic Science Agency just over two years ago. And eventually it might become reality in the rest of the country, now more than a decade into the fight against extremists within its borders.
Nationwide, incompetent and corrupt systems have hampered Pakistan's ability to track terrorists. Take crime-scene investigation as an example.
"This was the biggest weakness: We never had the crime-scene protection," Punjab's counterterrorism minister, retired Col. Shuja Khanzada, told National Journal.
Until the Punjab agency was established, Pakistani authorities lacked the know-how or resources to properly protect a crime scene or extract possible evidence. They did not have a forensics lab where analysts could then synthesize the material and submit it to the courts as evidence.
Before the agency was first formed in October 2011, the Punjab police relied on what the local government now calls "archaic" methods of investigation left over from the time Pakistan was a British colony. Criminals and terrorists, said Punjab Home Secretary Azam Suleman Khan, "were let free by the courts because proper evidence could not be proved or sequenced to that particular incident." Now, Punjab's forensics agency has all the established disciplines in one lab, including crime-scene investigation; firearms and tool marks; DNA and serology; and polygraph examination.
The old fingerprint bureau and chemical examiner's office in the Punjab police department were prone to corruption. Terrorists or criminals, or those who supported them, could bribe them or force them to tamper with evidence or not pursue it. So the provincial government has been working with courts across Pakistan to familiarize them with forensics capabilities.
"People used to get away by bribing the people or knowing that we don't have the proper facility or evidence that can be produced in the courts," Khan said. "Now the courts have a facility … with science-based evidence."
Punjab's chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, who is also the prime minister's brother, is serious about the forensics project. He has invested heavily. The lab, funded without federal or international grants, had an initial cost of $25 million and its expenses total $7 million a year. The lab is already in high demand, fielding more than 80,000 cases, including some from other provinces.
Sharif wants to expand forensics labs into eight more major cities in his province, the most populous and prosperous in the country.
The forensics agency's director general, Mohammad Ashraf Tahir, said he thinks modern labs will be set up throughout the country. His lab, which adheres to international standards, is developing a national forensic strategy to raise other labs across Pakistan to the same standard. It is also building a national database for DNA, fingerprints, and ballistics.
But, there's still a long way to go before forensics makes a difference in the criminal justice system in Punjab - let alone Pakistan.
"We now have to change habits," Sharif, the chief minister, said. "The police need to still learn to understand its great advantages. They are used to, unfortunately, in some cases, conniving with the culprits. They don't send samples over here unless they feel they are being watched and monitored."
Even with Punjab's new initiatives, the police are under-resourced, Rumi said, citing his own reporting that has found the average cost of an investigation falling far short of the $300 to $500 needed per case.
As the U.S. war ends in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials say the United States should help beef up Pakistan's terrorist-tracking and crime-fighting capabilities if Washington wants Islamabad to assist in counterterrorism efforts.
"Drones are counterproductive," said the chairman of Pakistan's Senate Defense Committee, Mushahid Hussain Sayed, but the U.S. can help by assisting Pakistan in "good DNA labs, fingerprinting, forensics labs" to help fight "terrorism, especially in cities or urban areas."
Beyond funding, Punjab is seeking an exchange of forensic scientists to help develop the facilities, share their experiences, and work on best practices. Already, 32 scientists from the Lahore lab were sent to crime labs in the U.S. on Pakistan's dime; this could be expanded.
As Rumi awaits the trial of the men who carried out the attack that killed his driver, he is careful to contain his optimism, even with the forensic evidence that's been collected. "If there are better convictions or not, that remains to be seen," he said. "At the end of the day, it is about punishing the terrorists and sentencing them, and ending the culture of impunity."
This article appears in the May 15, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.