The gruesome killings in Sahiwal have once again brought into the public domain the deep-rooted practice of extrajudicial and staged encounters. Let’s call a spade a spade, and recognise that it has been a widely accepted practice. The country’s leadership as well as the classes with a public voice have been well aware of state agencies resorting to such encounters to deal with criminal and terrorism suspects. A certain cop of Karachi, now deceased, is still celebrated for his mastery in such encounters. Another cop still remains out of reach of the law, a year after his involvement in the extrajudicial killing of four youngsters in Karachi’s Malir area came to surface.In off the record conversations, the excuse presented by personnel of law enforcement agencies has been that in the presence of a criminal justice system that does not ensure prosecutions leading to convictions, staged encounters have been an effective tool for ‘elimination of criminal and anti-state elements’. That innocent citizens may also get hurt in the process simply doesn’t register with them. They somehow manage to write off the lives of these citizens as collateral damage without batting an eyelid. Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat did that while addressing the press on Sunday.The Punjab government has formed a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe Sahiwal killings. How can the leadership, which claims to be working towards a Naya Pakistan, expects the public to trust the proceedings of a JIT manned by personnel of state agencies that have for long been privy to the prevalence of such practices? At the moment, the least that should be done to ensure impartiality in investigation is to make the JIT report its proceedings to a parliamentary committee comprising lawmakers from both sides of the aisle with a history of speaking up for protection of rights and constitutional supremacy. Thankfully, we have several lawmakers on both sides with such a reputation. Their presence to oversee the JIT is a must to ensure fairness.The public outcry over the Sahiwal killings has led to the initial attention paid to the matter. It is of crucial importance that the incident not be seen in isolation. It is a continuation of a well-established pattern of policing across the country where our law enforcement institutions lack mechanisms to instil in their personnel respect for citizens’ fundamental rights and legal procedures that ought to be followed in dealing with crime suspects. This is an alarming situation since it implies that the workings of our law enforcers is hardly any different from that of criminal gangs and thugs from whom they are meant to protect us. We have countless examples from the recent past to corroborate such claims. Thus, action must now be initiated against the practice of extrajudicial and staged killings at a structural level. It is the responsibility of our political leadership to take up this matter. Their lack of will at this juncture where formal requirements of democratic governance have taken root in the country will further delay progress towards a substantial democracy. The risks of such a delay cannot be stressed enough. For many citizens who live on the social and economic margins of Pakistani polity, the state and its laws will further lose their credibility.Therefore, if an emergency has ever been required in this country, now is the time. But it must be an emergency to end the state of exceptionalism that exists in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems. This emergency must be overseen by elected representatives of the Pakistani people, and the institution of the Parliament. They must work with the judiciary and the executive to fix the rot.Published in Daily Times, January 21st 2019.