CSI-Pakistan: To Catch a Terrorist

Pakistan is only now beginning to learn how to collect evidence needed to track and prosecute the terrorists in its midst.

Outside the Punjab Forensic Science Agency. 
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
May 14, 2014, 3:28 p.m.

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.”

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