It would not be unfair to deem 2016 the year of high-profile kidnapping news in Pakistan.
It was mainly good news: five years after being abducted, Shahbaz Taseer, son of slain former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was recovered in March. More celebrations followed in May when Ali Haider Gilani, son of ex-prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was recovered from Afghanistan.
But as the Taseers and Gilanis sigh with relief, the family of Barrister Awais Ali Shah – son of sitting Sindh High Court Justice Sajjad Ali Shah who was picked up in Karachi just last week – is plunged into a terrifying, unpredictable ordeal.
As he walked out of a superstore in Karachi’s upper-class neighbourhood of Clifton, Barrister Shah did not know what awaited him.
The police suspect the motive here is to use him as a bargaining chip to ensure release of some captured militants. In most cases, however, people are kidnapped with the intention of asking for ransom.
Based on statistics, kidnapping for ransom, a scourge that has long haunted Karachi, was finally brought under control in 2015. Data provided by Citizen-Police Liaison Committee reveals a significant trend: compared to the 174 individuals kidnapped in 2013, there have been 15 kidnappings in the current year, till 22 June.
We sat with Jameel Yusuf, the founder chief of CPLC, which acts as a go-between and negotiator in kidnapping cases, to understand kidnappings in Karachi better, and seek advice on what one can do if they or their loved one is abducted.
In the late 1980s, kidnappers would at random target people on highways as they left Karachi. The trend, however, changed over time with more high-profile citizens being targeted.
Yusuf says kidnappers often estimate the value of a person based on the car they are driving. They think, “If nothing else, the family can sell the car and give us the ransom. We will get at least Rs 700,000 to Rs 800,000”.
Does this mean the less affluent don’t get kidnapped?
Not quite, maintains Yusuf. While the well-to-do have been more obvious victims, kidnappers have targeted people from all walks of life. Yusuf says he has also worked on kidnapping cases of a rickshaw driver’s child and a small general store owner’s child. The only difference in the cases is the amount of ransom demanded. “With a general store owner, they would demand Rs 100,000 and then enter negotiations."
Does it help to travel with a security guard?
Yes, often it is a deterrent, although many in this large city can simply not afford one. “A kidnapper would like to pick up somebody who is without a guard. In their heads [they think] why should [we] risk our lives?”
Travelling with a guard in a car behind you – another expensive security layer – makes you even less vulnerable. “If you think you are a high-profile target, you should have a car with guards following you,” says Yusuf.
He explains that it is not the best idea to have guards in your own vehicle, where you could get shot in crossfire.
Do people with guards never get kidnapped?
It does happen, but very rarely according to Yusuf. “If you are a high-profile target, the kidnappers would try to eliminate the guards and then take you.”
How does a kidnapper strike?
Timing is crucial
Kidnappers usually avoid daylight; most abductions, in Yusuf’s experience, take place after sunset. There are exceptions, of course, “when they were picking up schoolchildren, they used to do so during the day when the child was going to or coming back from school”.
How many kidnappers operate together?
Often there are four kidnappers. “One would take over your car seat, push you at the back, where two others would make you sit in between them”, the fourth kidnapper would ride shotgun in this scenario.
In “short-term” kidnappings, where the victim is driven around in their own car while the family arranges for ransom, sometimes the kidnappers will let you sit in the driver’s seat.
This method has often been used to kidnap women, says Yusuf. With the woman on the steering wheel, the kidnappers would quietly open the doors and sit in the backseat, pointing a gun at her. In this case, there is something you can do.
How do you get out?
“Don’t panic, keep your cool, drive on and bang the first car in front of you,” advises Yusuf. The moment you hit another car, the kidnappers would think you’ve done it because of the nerves, and the other cars will stop. The scene this will create will force the kidnappers to flee.
A loved one has been kidnapped, what now?
Calling the authorities
The crime has to be reported to the police so an FIR must be lodged. While people think they can’t always rely on the authorities, Yusuf stresses, “The police has to be informed; CPLC has to be called because you don’t trust a criminal, okay?”
“You can trust your own law enforcing agencies, rather than [trusting] a criminal and not reporting the crime.”
What happens if I don’t report?
In extreme scenarios, if “God forbid something happens to the kidnapped individual”, or they are killed, you will be on top of the police’s list of suspects, explains Yusuf.
He stresses that you will definitely be worse off not contacting the authorities, “who have now developed technologies in detecting [perpetrators] and can catch the kidnapper without any ransom payment”.
Will the kidnappers hurt the victim?
In Yusuf’s experience, they likely won’t. “They have never hurt anybody. There has never been any casualty [in a kidnapping for ransom case],” he says. The victims are the kidnappers’ only bargaining chip; they are unlikely to harm them.
How long is the negotiation?
The process used to last much longer in the past. On average, says Yusuf, it would take three to four months.
Over time, as kidnappings became increasingly common and kidnappers started to have “a higher turnover”, they became sloppy. “It became easier for us to catch them because they were making more mistakes everywhere.”
Since then, kidnappers want to get the transaction completed as soon as possible. They are likely to take a smaller amount of money in two months, rather than keep negotiating for a higher payday over an extended period of time, putting their own lives at risk.
What should the victim do if there is a police encounter?
Lie still on the floor and hang tight. Yusuf recalls an unfortunate incident, where a kidnapped individual died because “he got up too early”.
“Don’t get up, don’t go out — how would the police know whether you are the victim or a kidnapper?” he asks.
What steps are taken to rehabilitate the victim?
Isolating them, or being overly cautious is not helpful, he believes. Yusuf came up with a system to motivate recovered persons, “I used to give them a role number [and say] ‘You are a VIP member in a special club of kidnapees. It is by invitation only’”.
If someone has gone through the horrible ordeal, “treat them normally and keep things light,” advices Yusuf.
Illustrations by Marium Ali/Herald
This article first appeared on Dawn.