Making sense of the Sarfraz Shah verdict

On August 12, history was made. A paramilitary soldier, standing trial in a civilian court, was sentenced to death for extrajudicial murder in Karachi – the city that lives under the watchful eyes of over 10,000 Rangers.

This verdict has not only criminalised an unlawful killing but has also declared that an act of terrorism is just that, even if the perpetrator is a security official. This anti-terrorism court has upheld “the rule of law”.

However, the judgment – and the precedent that it has set – has, at best, received a mixed response.

One section of the people, although without outrightly supporting or criticising the verdict, have posed a fair question that if this case could be wrapped up in a record two months, why can’t other cases (particularly that against Salmaan Taseer’s self-confessed murderer Mumtaz Qadri) be decided with such expediency.

But another section has explicitly condemned the verdict. The boy, they say, was a criminal and had been looting people when the honourable Rangers gunned him down. Therefore, they were doing their job and deserve leniency.

Yes Sarfraz Shah, armed or not, was a criminal. But his offence, a robbery, is not punishable by death – the verdict that the seven accused handed down to Sarfraz without even so much as mercy, let alone a trial. If the accused were doing public service and following the law, they should have taken Sarfraz to a police station, have had a FIR registered, declared whatever evidence was gathered from his possession and made a criminal stand trial for the appalling crime of robbing unarmed people in a public park.

But none of that happened. What happened instead was the use of brute force and the merciless killing of a criminal who certainly deserved to pay for his misdeed but not with his life.

It is for this disservice to an already terrorised nation and to the fragile state of law that Ranger Shahid Zafar and his accomplices deserve the sentences that they have been served with. A uniform is not a licence to kill and this verdict, even if overturned, will be a reminder of that.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2011.