More than 2,000 people were murdered in Pakistan's largest city last year, but the shooting death of 20-year-old Shahzeb Khan in one of Karachi's most upscale neighborhoods sparked an unusual outcry and highlighted a growing trend of citizens using social media to hold the country's rich and powerful to account.
Khan was allegedly gunned down by a pair of young men from two of the wealthiest families in Karachi, a chaotic metropolis of 18 million people on Pakistan's southern coast. The late night shooting at the end of December occurred after Khan, a university student, had an argument with one of the alleged shooters' servants.
Khan's family would likely have had little chance of getting justice in the past, even though his father is a mid-ranking police officer. Pakistan's police and judges are notoriously corrupt and are often swayed by pressure from the country's elite. The same is true for the main media outlets, which often take their business interests and political biases into account when choosing to run a story.
Those underlying dynamics have not changed. But Pakistanis lining the corridors of power and their offspring, who are often bred with an extreme sense of entitlement, are now faced with a growing cadre of citizens who have had enough. Those citizens, many of whom are middle or upper middle class, are attempting to fight back with the help of the Internet, an activist Supreme Court and prominent political figures seeking to harness their anger.
"What we are seeing is somewhat of a democratization of power," said Cyril Almeida, a political analyst and columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. "Public naming and shaming is now more possible."
Khan's saga began around midnight on Dec. 24 when he dropped his sister off at their family's apartment in the upmarket neighborhood of Defense after attending a wedding reception, said his father, Aurangzeb Khan. While she waited for her brother to pick up the apartment keys from their parents, she was harassed by a servant working for one of their neighbors, 22-year-old Nawab Siraj Talpur, son of one of the largest landowners in surrounding Sindh province.
Khan rushed back after his sister called to complain and also argued with the servant, said his father, who tried to resolve the issue with Talpur. The younger Khan slapped the servant in anger, said police. The situation worsened when Shahrukh Jatoi, the teenage son of a wealthy industrialist and landowner, arrived and declared that the younger Khan had dishonored his friend, Talpur, and they would take revenge, said the elder Khan.
The two allegedly opened fire on the younger Khan minutes later as he was driving, causing his car to slam into a tree and flip over, said the head of the police investigation, Niaz Jhoso, citing eyewitnesses. They allegedly fired at him again after the crash, killing him, said the police investigator. The two men have denied the accusations.
"I'm struggling to get the killers punished," said the dead man's father. "What is this law of the jungle that if a rich person commits a crime no one is there to nab him?"
Karachi is a notoriously violent place, but most murders occur in the city's poorest neighborhoods, where gangs affiliated with the main political parties battle over land and extort money from local businesses. Violence in the city's upscale neighborhoods of Defense and Clifton is much rarer, and anger is often directed at the "feudal elite" — a label that originally applied to owners of vast agricultural lands but has come to encompass urban industrialists as well.
"That is where the 'respectable' scum come in, treating citizens like serfs, driving around with guards, drunk, partying, picking up girls and very often raping and dumping them," political analyst Ejaz Haider wrote in a recent column in The Express Tribune newspaper. "These families are influential and killing a human being for them is like swatting a fly. Even if a case is reported, the rich and influential criminals never get punished."
After Khan's death, his father called his wife's brother-in-law, Nabeel Gabool, a member of the National Assembly, who said he had difficulty getting the police to register a case against the accused — an accusation denied by the police.
Activists in Karachi kicked into gear, holding protests to demand justice and using Twitter and Facebook to get their message out. They set up a Facebook page "In memory of Shahzeb Khan" that has over 130,000 likes. Some of the protests were organized by the party of politician Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has railed against the country's feudals. The outcry attracted significant media attention.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court demanded the police arrest the suspected killers in 24 hours, seize their property and freeze their bank accounts. That got the ball rolling, and police have now arrested Jatoi, Talpur, his brother Sajjad Talpur and his servant Mustafa Lashari. Jatoi was nabbed in Dubai, where he had tried to escape.
Social media also played a key role in a case last year involving the son-in-law of Shahbaz Sharif, the chief of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab. The son-in-law, Ali Imran Yousaf, allegedly directed his guards and police to beat a bakery worker who refused to serve his wife because the shop in the eastern city of Lahore was closed, according to court documents.
The incident was recorded on the bakery's security camera, but TV stations refused to broadcast the video for about a week, claiming it was ambiguous, said media officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not have permission from their bosses. The video was uploaded to YouTube, where it received considerable attention, forcing stations to run it. Police then registered a case and arrested the accused.
"This was bottom-up pressure," said Almeida, the Dawn columnist. "It was not some news channel or newspaper that broke the story, but pressure from below that forced the mainstream media to acknowledge the events and report them."
But this type of pressure is not always enough. Despite the video evidence, a court acquitted the suspects after the bakery owner and the worker who was beaten recanted their original testimony and said the chief minister's son-in-law and the others were not the ones who performed the beating.
Other cases have been more successful. Last year, the daughter of a feudal family in Sindh was caught on camera slapping a poll worker during a provincial assembly election she was contesting. The tape was aired repeatedly on TV and online.
The Supreme Court took up the case under so-called "suo moto" provisions, which allows it to initiate cases based on "public interest," instead of waiting for cases appealed from lower courts to land in its docket. The court ordered the government to investigate the incident, and the woman was suspended from participating in elections for two years.
It remains to be seen what kind of justice is handed down in the brutal death of Khan in Karachi.
"You want to know when a system has become totally dysfunctional?" wrote Haider, The Express Tribune columnist. "It is when the highest court in the land has to take suo-motu notice of a murder case because the nation is being ruled by criminals."
Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.