Stories from the lock-up: A juvenile, political prisoner and dancing girl

Last year in August, I began recording stories of inmates at Karachi’s city court lock-up. What I saw was heartbreaking.
Published December 13, 2016

As a young lawyer, everyday I witness inmates arriving from the correction centre to the city court lock-up for hearings. For even the most basic of ‘comforts’ they have to pay bribes. They pay to loosen their rusted handcuffs and chains; adding some more money gets them a shiny new set of handcuffs. Many also pay to request for a transfer to Karachi Central Jail, which is closer to their relatives in the city centre as compared to the far off Landhi Jail.

While going back from court to the lock-up, cops thoroughly search the inmates. This is not for security reasons, but because they know that having just met with relatives, the prisoners might have come into some money. They routinely look into the inmates’ wallets and pull out as much as they like.

Bribes go around to shorten the waiting time for a hearing; to get into the prison van earlier in the morning; to meet loved ones within the correction centre.

Many inmates simply languish inside lock-ups, as they do not have the means to pay up.

Last year in August, I started to record stories of inmates at Karachi’s city court lock-up. The interviews with kids, women and men shine a stark light the incompetence of the judicial system.

Illustrations by Marium Ali
Illustrations by Marium Ali

The dancing girl

I step into the city court at 11am and try to interview female inmates – all attempts prove futile. Just as an interview with a woman is starting to seem like an impossibility, a girl approaches me from behind the bars.

Her attire is hard to ignore.

Her dark black hair reaches down to her waist and the bangles in her right hand make a sound as she gestures while speaking. From her bangles hangs a votive red thread, which she explains is meant to bring good luck.

“I am a resident of Landhi and have seven siblings,” she starts talking, wishing to remain anonymous. “I am the third among them. We are all dependent on our father's pension who has retired as a police official.”

Being the daughter of a retired police official affords the girl certain concessions.

She doesn’t have to eat lunch from the canteen provided by the Saylani Welfare Trust, which she finds subpar. Instead she opts for food that her family brings her at the lock-up. If one does not have 'connections', they would have to pay between Rs200 and 500 for such an arrangement.

Yet, even she is unable to escape the sorry conditions of the lock-up. She tells me that she is recovering from an upset stomach after falling ill due to the dirty water the inmates have to consume.

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“In the women section when the female prisoners leave for the correction centre, the police officials keep male accused here and they write abusive words all over the walls. In the summers, it is always unbearably hot and there is no fan inside, and in the winter there are no arrangements either. The washroom is full to the brim with faecal matter. And the rooms are cleaned after a week,” she says.

She pauses for a moment as a female constable quickly pilots other women into the cell. In accordance to the law, the women are not wearing handcuffs (in contrast to their male counterparts).

As the commotion (relatively) subsides, she continues. The girl says she was a singer and model, and used to perform at private parties.

These parties would get quite unruly. At one such party in DHA Phase 2 extension, someone was once killed during a squabble right before her eyes.

“I was arrested by the police in a murder case and the FIR was lodged at the Defence Police station.” She claims she was merely an eyewitness to the murder, but was nominated as an accomplice to the murder. “The actual culprit [a lawyer] was set free as he had paid the police,” she adds.

“The weapon recovered from the crime scene has not been processed for forensics and examination and I am languishing in here for years,” she laments.

She is clearly disillusioned with the legal system.

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Earlier that morning, her lawyer had not show up for a scheduled meeting. She asks me to contact him on the phone and I comply. Upon answering the call, the lawyer is dismissive at first thinking that I am her relative. When I tell him that I am a fellow lawyer who just wants to help out his client, he claims that he is out of the city.

This practice of putting off low-profile clients is common among lawyers. In such a system, it is easy to see why many continue to suffer in prison cells, yearning to see their families.

From a red purse, the girl takes out her most prized possession — a photograph of her son.

“[He] was two years of age when I entered the correction centre in 2011. He is seven years old now,” she tells me.

She no longer meets him. “The time he came to visit me, when he went to school after, he told his classmates that his mother is in jail. That isn’t good for his upbringing so I have stopped meeting him.”

The juvenile

Over at the men’s lock-up things are rowdier. This is a crowded and noisy place where it is difficult to focus on any one individual. Yet the smiles of three children sitting on the side wall instantly catch one's eye. These juveniles are placed alongside adult prisoners.

They have come to court from the borstal institution where they have been sent for rehabilitation in accordance to the Juvenile Justice System, 2000.

I talk to one of the children, named Ali. His Urdu is mixed with Pashto. The boy has light brown eyes and yellow teeth. He is chewing challian (betel nuts), which he has acquired from the adult prisoners.

Ali estimates that his age is 14, although he looks much younger.

He was a resident of Sohrab Goth, Al-Asif Square and has three sisters.

“I have attended up to the fourth grade of primary school,” he tells me.

While we speak, the other boys periodically come and whisper in his ears. They seem to be wondering why is talking to a stranger. He reassures them that he has not revealed his real name.

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A constable from the lockup in-charge room approaches us, asking me to wrap up soon as the children were about to leave. He walks away, giving the kids an ominous smile. Was this meant to be a warning for them?

Nonetheless, these children who live away from home and suffer abuse everyday cannot be hushed with a smile.

Ali’s story is almost identical to the girl's.

“I was an eye witness of a robbery but later, the robbers were let go after they bribed the police. I was arrested instead. I have been in judicial custody since Aug 7, 2015,” he tells me. He alleges that while arresting him the police told him that if he accepts ‘his guilt,’ he would be let go in three days — a promise they have failed to keep.

As they see us in conversation, some other children come and stand beside Ali. They keep their hands on his shoulders and ask me to photograph them. They say that they all consider each other brothers.

One of the children says that he sits next to Ali the classroom at borstal institution. “We have a school inside the borstal where the classes commence from 8am and end at noon.”

While this sounds great in theory, the children say they are not learning anything. “We wear the uniform they give us and sit around the entire time doing nothing. The [teacher] simply teaches us the Urdu alphabet, which I learned back in the first grade,” Ali’s friend tells

The comradery the children share is heart-warming. As they sit together smiling and chatting it is not hard to momentarily forget their circumstances.

This bubble is quickly burst, however, when Ali talks about having a skin disease. “Whenever I ask for the doctor they abuse me,” he says.

The Sindh Children Act, 1955 states that if a child is suffering from a disease which requires prolonged medical treatment, the court will take necessary steps in this regard. Yet, despite clear signs of eczema on his skin, Ali is denied medical attention.

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“I recall my family members while sleeping late at night and some nights I cry thinking about the future and living again with parents…” Ali says breaking down.

At this inopportune moment our chat is cut short when a female constable approaches us. She has come to take the children back. I ask Ali when his next hearing will be.

“After 15 days but usually it takes 20 days for the next hearing,” he says. The reason for the delay is that the Judicial Magistrate on the roster call has around 120, or sometimes even more cases every day.

The Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000 declares the creation of Juvenile Court — such a court is yet to be established.

The political prisoner

When you enter the city court lock-up, straight ahead is the lock-up in-charge’s room. As I approach him, he is recording the production order of inmates while blasting the Bollywood song Chikni Chameli from his cell phone.

I ask him if there is any political prisoner in custody, without uttering a word he points to the left.

This is the cell dedicated to the khatarnak qaidis (dangerous inmates). The cell is dark and its only light bulb has lost power.

From the shadows, a man steps forward.

This is Mohammad Imran who was picked up by the Rangers on September 9, 2015 in front of his New Karachi home.

After arrest he, “remained missing for nine days. I was kept at the New Karachi headquarter of the Rangers. On September 18, the Rangers transferred [me] to the New Karachi police station, where three cases of ATC (Anti-Terrorist Court) and one case of motorcycle theft were lodged against me.”

The father of three says that he is the soul breadwinner of his family. “We are six brothers and one sister, and I am the eldest of them.”

From Imran’s claims it seems like he had a good life before being arrested. He says that he was a contractual social mobilisation officer for Unicef’s polio eradication programme. He also belonged to a political party and “was a candidate for local body elections by the party from New Karachi sector 11-G,” he says.

As I am talking to Imran, I am distracted by the sounds of inmates being slapped by a cop. Intimidating the most frightened inmates to extract information seems to be the order of the day.

Imran complains, “We, the accused, are… treated far worse than animals”. They are transported in congested police vans “like cattle”.

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These khatarnak inmates are also given no calling facilities; they can only speak to a lawyer or their relatives on the hearing date by paying the police Rs200 for a brief call.

In these trying conditions the inmates wait long periods before their cases are heard.

Previously single judges in the Anti-Terrorist Court, used to process 200 or even more cases, but on the directions of the High Court the number has reduced to 35 to 40 as of June 2016. In the limited time, the court hears only five to six cases every day.

Things would be very different if Imran had money, he believes.

He says that when he was handed over by the Rangers to the police, the police asked him for a bribe of Rs500,000. This bribe would mean that only two cases will be lodged against him. “I could only give them one lakh because I am not rich,” he says, with this amount four cases were 'leniently' lodged in his name.

I still have much to ask Imran, but we are out of time. Imran is taken back to an overcrowded prison van that will transport him to the correction centre. As the van was driving away, I could recognise his unmistakable eyes gazing back at me through iron-barred window of the vehicle.

Additional reporting by Imdad Hussain Tanoli