By Zia Ur Rehman

KARACHI – As civil society in Karachi is urging the government to de-weaponise the city, the government is devising a strategy for making the whole country gun-free, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik has hinted.

During the first three weeks of August, about 175 people were slain in Karachi, according to the data obtained from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The data show that 1,106 murders were committed in the first seven months of this year, most of them with illicit weapons.

The August 19 targeted killing of Ubaidullah Yusufzai, a provincial leader of the Awami National Party (ANP) unleashed an outbreak of violence in Karachi, leading to 15 deaths. About 100 deaths occurred in the riots after the August 2 assassination of Syed Raza Haider, a Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) lawmaker.

“Some of the slain were activists of political parties, but most of them were apolitical,” Taranum Khan, an HRCP Karachi officer, told Central Asia Online.

Karachi murder rate up

Social organisations are concerned about the increase in gun violence and targeted killings, he said.

“Last year, 844 people were killed, 184 of them victims of targeted killings,” Khan said, adding that the rate of slayings has almost doubled this year.

“Doctors, police officers and religious scholars are also on the list of assassination victims.”

“HRCP is regularly compiling and releasing data about the killings in Karachi so that the government and civil society can realise the severity of the menace,” Khan said.

”]Karachi’s civil society organisations are demanding the government de-weaponise the city.

Pakistan has one of the highest per-capita figures of gun ownership in the world, a report by the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a worldwide network against gun violence, shows.

Though official figures are not available, estimates put the number of small arms, licensed and unlicensed, in the country at more than 20m, the report added. Pakistan’s population is about 170m.

Pakistanis own more guns than military

IANSA’s report also said that civilians are the largest category of gun owners in Pakistan, holding more weapons than the military, police and the militants.

“An increase in the (number) of incidents of violence and crimes in Karachi has doubled the sale of arms because there is a belief that possessing a gun makes one safe,” Syed Afzal, an arms dealer at the Lucky Star arms market, told Central Asia Online. An arms dealer used to sell an average of one weapon daily; today, the average is 15.

The country’s arm dealers suffered when then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government banned possession of arms in 1992, said Afzal. That ban ended in 1999 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf came to power.

Some residents of Karachi keep around 50 weapons on a single license and the government is devising a strategy to stop such abuse, Malik said. Talking to reporters , Malik said the government has decided that gun license owners will have to bring them to local police stations.

Those who fail to have their arms licenses inspected within two months of the instructions will face action from the government, he vowed.

The Pakistan People’s Party, ANP and MQM, Sindh government coalition partners that openly accuse each other of killings, are also demanding the disarmament of the city.

De-weaponization for country considered

The government is not only trying to disarm the city but is devising a strategy for the whole country after consultations with all political parties, Malik said.

Anti-weapon campaigners say strict criteria for the issuance of arms licenses should be enforced without exception, not just on the recommendation of parliamentarians, said Iqbal Jamil, head of the National Social Forum (NSF).

The government has proposed extending the punishment for violating weapons laws from three years to ten years, said an officer at the Home Department who requested anonymity.

“It was also decided in a meeting of governmental high-ups that peace committees – consisting of elected representatives, social activists and police officials — should be re-activated. They were established earlier at local Union Council levels but had been unable to work properly ever since they were formed,” the officer said.

The government has also established “a special cell” to curb the targeted killings in the city in collaboration with Inter-Services Intelligence and the Intelligence Bureau, two of Pakistan’s covert agencies, the official said.