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The statecraft of torture

July 15, 2017


TORTURE has become a routine part of both Pakistani statecraft and citizenship — our state vehemently denies its existence, and persistently continues to employ it in practice, whilst our society unabashedly concedes its existence, and silently condones its continued employment.

The official narrative is clear and simple: Pakistan denounces torture in all forms. It is considered inimical to a civilised society, an affront to the inviolable dignity of mankind, a crude and barbaric practice and a pre-enlightenment heritage of yesteryears.

We are party to innumerable international agreements, treaties and conventions, all outlawing torture, either as a punishment or as a method of interrogation, and Article 14(2) of our Constitution unequivocally proclaims that “no person shall be subjected to torture for the purpose of extracting evidence”.

We are not torture abolitionists, as we fervently proclaim, but closeted torture apologists.

In essence, we are self-certified torture abolitionists.

The non-official narrative, informed by our unsanctioned and unauthorised realities, our lived experiences, suggests a near-unanimous consensus that torture not only exists, but is endemic to our society, a regularised facet of everyday life.

Suspected criminals are vigorously beaten in policy custody (a now-notorious feature of thana culture), as if corporal punishment is akin to some divine truth serum, here to provide us deliverance from our investigative and institutional inadequacies. Similarly, prisoners consistently complain of unchecked harassment and abuse at the hands of prison staff; activists routinely ‘disappear’, only to magically reappear as muzzled versions of their former selves; and dissenters of all sorts speak (in hushed voices) of threats and intimidation by security watchdogs.

Evidently, both torture and the threat of torture have become a deeply ingrained and firmly entrenched part of state administration. And remarkably, we have all become silent spectators to our own subjugation. There are multifarious reasons for this acquiescence, and chief amongst these, is that our society genuinely believes that torture is, for one, an effective form of interrogation, and second, a necessity.

A survey conducted by Amnesty International in 2014, and titled Attitudes to Torture, noted that more than half of those who were surveyed in Pakistan agreed that “torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public”. And herein lies the problem: we are not torture abolitionists, as we fervently proclaim, but closeted torture apologists.

We still firmly ascribe to the outdated notion that torture can actually yield reliable and truthful information — that if you beat a suspect enough, you may actually break them. This belief has long been rubbished by leading psychologists and interrogation experts, who adamantly argue that torturing an individual is not only morally abhorrent, but ineffective.

In his book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, Professor Shane O’Mara, explains that torture, rather than creating a conscious and reasoned desire in the suspect to cooperate with his interrogators, creates panic, mental trauma, dissociation and sensory confusion, rendering any torture-induced testimony as unreliable and worthless. The suspect, far from being likely to tell the truth, is more likely to say anything simply to put an end to his misery.

Putting the question of efficacy aside, let us turn to the second argument, that at times torture is not only necessary but also ethical, that in some situations, public interest demands that absolute rules be relaxed and the ends be allowed to justify the means — the classic ‘ticking time bomb hypothesis’.

This argument, however, is based on a multiplicity of assumptions, which may or may not be true. Firstly, it assumes that the suspect in custody is indeed guilty, or does indeed hold valuable information. Secondly, it assumes that if tortured, the suspect is likely to provide correct information. And thirdly (bringing us full circle), it assumes that torture will be effective as a form of interrogation in the first place.

The belief that torture may, in some circumstances be acceptable, is a dangerous one, and it is doubly dangerous for the state to hold or to be allowed to hold, for any entity that has a complete monopoly on the exercise of legitimate violence cannot be permitted to create blurred and arbitrary formulas for how such violence should be actualised. That is a risk to our liberty and freedom that cannot be condoned, no matter the end, no matter the means.

It is time to stop apologising for torture. Its use, as a tool of governance and as a modus operandi of state control must be challenged. Our legislature must be prompted into action to create a statutory framework that addresses the issue: that adequately defines torture, prohibits its employment and introduces strict penal consequences for state actors that violate this prohibition. Moreover, state institutions and agencies must be retrained and rewired to discard old notions surrounding the effectiveness and acceptability of torture and introduce modern cooperation-centric interrogative techniques.

Furthermore, mechanisms must be introduced to carry out thorough and serious investigations into allegations of torture. A victim of torture is usually left with but one option and that is to report the matter to the police (which, incidentally, is in most cases the perpetrator). Due to lack of police accountability and oversight, most of these cases are never registered and those that are, end up being thwarted by lack of cooperation by the police during investigation and prosecution.

The bitter irony here is that we (quite rightly) waste little time in condemning others for the same. We are quick to champion the cause of Aafia Siddiqui, to berate the United States and its allies for torturing suspected terrorists, to denounce any form of state-sanctioned violence in other jurisdictions — why not extend the same courtesy to our own people?

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2017