LAHORE: The United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) raised tough questions about military courts, “continued enforced disappearances” and “torture of prisoners in detention”, in its first review of implementation in Pakistan of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, held in Geneva on Tuesday and streamed live.

The state delegation was led by Senator Kamran Michael, the minister for human rights, who was joined by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Human Rights Barrister Zafarullah Khan and Saima Saleem from the Foreign Service.

In his opening remarks, Mr Michael said the Constitution of Pakistan had prohibited the use of torture under Articles 9, 10 and 14. He said the state recognised that torture was an outmoded practice that violated human dignity.

“Pakistan continues to uphold provisions of the UN Convention... Its commitment to the protection of human rights precedes the ratification of the UN Charter.”

Quoting a news article from 2016, Alessio Bruni, of the CAT, said media reports, however, claimed that a majority of prisoners were tortured in Pakistani prisons and a significant proportion underwent sexual abuse in detention.

Felice Gaer, the country rapporteur on CAT for Pakistan, asked whether there was an independent mechanism for redress in such cases. She asked that while under the law prisoners could write to the chief justice of Pakistan in the case of torture, “What is the number of complaints? Is there data to support this?”

Ms Gaer and Essadia Belmir raised the issue of powers of military courts to try civilians, asking why the trials were conducted in secret and why no monitors were allowed? She noted that there were no written judgements of cases tried in military courts.

Ms Gaer asked if the government intended to amend the Anti-Ter­ro­rism Act so that confessions obtained under duress by police were made inadmissible. She also mentioned the lynching of Mashal Khan in Mardan and asked what the state had done to meet requirements of due diligence to prevent private acts of violence.

Commenting on the CAT’s reservations against military courts, Saroop Ijaz of the Human Rights Watch pointed out that the government had not fulfilled its commitment to introduce reforms to improve the civil justice system. In fact, it could continue ad infinitum as the government no longer had the motivation to introduce the reforms it promised in January 2015.

Reema Omer of the International Commission of Jurists pointed out that the state report submitted to the CAT last year did not present a single example of a state official who had been successfully prosecuted for torture. “They repeatedly asked the delegation to give data on number of complaints, number of prosecutions and number of convictions, including of intelligence and military officers.”

Sarah Belal of the Justice Project Pakistan said the CAT had raised some difficult questions, the answers to which would inspire some much-needed reform in a system that had turned a blind eye to the use of torture for too long. “Custodial abuse is pervasive as are the confessions they often induce. If the government of Pakistan wants to retain its standing in the international community, they will have to bring its domestic legislation in line with its international commitments,” she said.

Pakistan ratified the Convention against Torture in 2010 and presented its initial report on the implementation of the treaty last year. The CAT posed various questions and sought clarifications on the report in the first session, while the state delegation will respond to these questions at the second session on Wednesday.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2017