LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan's first specialized homicide investigation unit is promoting a radical idea: find evidence, don't plant it.
Launched last month by police in the eastern province of Punjab, the 478-strong unit pairs veterans with university graduates who had an extra year of training in forensics, report writing and interrogation.
Reforming the crumbling criminal justice system and the cash-starved, poorly trained police force is vital to Pakistan's stability. Militants and criminals commonly walk free, and citizens are doubtful of seeing justice done.
That is partly because antiquated courts rely heavily on witness testimony and evidence found at the scene, and both are easily manipulated, say police and lawyers.
Punjab police chief Inspector General Mushtaq Sukhera hopes the new unit will help put an end to the practice.
"There was some pressure to do that (plant evidence) in the past, and the courts did not really want to rely on it," said Sukhera. "With this new unit there is no need."
In most murder cases, victims' families say they know who the killer is, police say. Yet few officers are trained to collect evidence to prove it, and sometimes make it up.
A dozen senior prosecutors and police told Reuters they coached witnesses and planted evidence, but only to incriminate the guilty.
"We get the right guy by the wrong methods," one senior officer in the eastern city of Lahore told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
Without a protection program, witnesses are afraid to testify, leaving police with little choice but to coach them and plant evidence, said Hassan Abbas, author of "The Taliban Revival" and a prominent expert on police reforms.
"You can't ask someone to risk everything if they are not convinced it will make any difference," he said.
Abbas argued that the new homicide unit was not enough.
"Basic problems like lack of police training, political interference and lack of funding are still not being addressed," he said. "Announcing new units is nice for the media, but the basics are still neglected."
Another challenge for police is that Islamic laws allowing families of victims to pardon killers in exchange for cash mean the guilty can go free and the innocent may be blackmailed.
"People are losing faith in the justice system day by day," said defense lawyer Raja Ghaneem Khan.
He recently got three men acquitted after a judge ruled evidence was planted and the men were in custody when the murder occurred. They were on death row for five years before being cleared.
At a mosque in the Punjabi city of Lahore last month, a team from the new homicide unit carefully photographed a corpse sprawled in the library, a bloody axe wedged in its back.
"In the old days, they would have just moved the body immediately and vital evidence would have been lost," said Umar Riaz, head of the new unit's Lahore section.
More than 400 homicide cases have been registered in the last month, and by mid-October the unit was close to completing one hundred. So far, 24 people have appeared in court based on its findings.
But funding and training gaps remain.
The new homicide squad does not have a budget. Officers should receive 50,000 rupees ($490) per investigation to cover the cost of transport, equipment and forensic tests.
The senior police official in Lahore said the stipend had been paid in around 40-45 percent of cases.
One newly appointed homicide officer, a veteran stationed outside Lahore, said he only had 25 days of extra training and had not been paid investigation expenses.
"We are in favor of this initiative, but if they don't do it properly, it will just be old wine in new bottles," warned another Punjabi policeman, himself a seasoned investigator.
A tiny national police budget leaves little cash for training and witness protection.
"In Pakistan, most of the time the natural (genuine) witnesses don't come forward. Even where the natural witnesses are available, police have to guide them on how they are supposed to testify," said Sukhera.
One method several police officers said was used in Punjab to bolster their case was to buy a gun, shoot a few rounds then place the bullets at a crime scene. When the suspect is captured, the gun is planted.
The Punjab Forensic Science Agency, which carries out tests for police, said around 70 percent of guns taken from suspects match bullets from crime scenes. The senior police officer said the match rate from genuine evidence is closer to 5 percent.
Even if the new unit is successful in Punjab, some killers will still walk free under Islamic laws passed in 1990 that allow pardons for cash.
Last year courts in Punjab, Pakistan's biggest and richest province, issued judgments on 3,543 murder cases. Twenty-three percent were guilty verdicts, 30 percent were acquittals, and fully 46 percent ended in a deal.
Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Editing by Mike Collett-White