ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The burger restaurant would seem to have little power against the police. Local officers had grown accustomed to getting free food from its intimidated employees, so when they met resistance, they threw 19 of the restaurant’s employees in jail.
The restaurant’s owner took the only course of action he felt he had left: He took his pleas for justice online.
The resulting social media outrage has led to the suspensions of nine police officers in Lahore, a city in eastern Pakistan, and shone a light on persistent police corruption in the country. The jailed restaurant workers have been set free, and local police officials have vowed to improve the behavior of law enforcement.
“We were stunned by the response we got,” said Gohar Iqbal, the chief executive of the six-year-old Johnny & Jugnu restaurant chain, which sells burgers, wraps and lemonade in three locations in Lahore. “Within hours, the customers spread the word, with many messaging that they had spoken to higher authorities on our behalf.”
Inam Ghani, the provincial police chief, took notice and ordered the Lahore police to take action against the officers. “Officers and personnel involved in illegal activities do not deserve any concession,” Mr. Ghani said in a statement.
Nobody was hurt in the run-in between the police and burger slingers. But the episode struck a chord in a country where police corruption has been a persistent issue, including over much more serious crimes such as extrajudicial killings and brutality. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, made police reform a major campaign promise during the 2018 general election.
Lahore is the provincial capital of Punjab, the country’s most populous and prosperous province, where the police are especially notorious for corruption and abuse. Earlier this year, its senior authorities replaced Umar Sheikh, the Lahore police chief, who had been appointed just a few months earlier with promises to transform the city’s force into, in his term, the “New York police.” But Mr. Sheikh himself had been surrounded by controversies.
Smaller abuses have angered people in Lahore, too. Small businesses there have often accused the police as well as tax and other officials of demanding favors like free food or heavy discounts.
“It is very common for the police to ask for free food,” Mr. Iqbal, of Johnny & Jugnu, said. “But what was worrying, in this case, was that the demands kept on increasing, culminating in the Friday night episode.”
Last Friday night and into early Saturday, according to Mr. Iqbal, a group of police officers showed up at a Johnny & Jugnu outlet in an upscale neighborhood of Lahore intent on scoring a free meal. When they didn’t get what they wanted, the police took the 19 workers into custody for several hours, saying they had violated coronavirus protocols. Video showed the police going to the counter, entering the kitchen and then escorting workers away. Business in the restaurant ground to a halt.
“The food was inside the fryers, the cash in the tiller was left unattended and customers were waiting when the police hauled the crew to the police station,” Mr. Iqbal said.
For almost seven hours, he and other senior employees of his fast-food chain lingered outside the police station trying to figure out what happened. The police told them that the restaurant workers had not been respectful during a previous visit, in addition to denying the officers free burgers.
The restaurateurs decided to post a statement on social media, primarily on Instagram and Facebook, protesting the highhandedness of the police. They also sent a statement to small-restaurant owners, asking, “How much longer will we be blackmailed?”
The workers were released the next day, after the posts prompted a social media uproar.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Ghani, the provincial police chief, invited Mr. Iqbal to his office in Lahore to assuage concerns. “The police chief said he was happy that we spoke up,” Mr. Iqbal said. “He has promised strict action against such practices. We are very encouraged by his response.”