Breaking wills, broken souls

Published December 10, 2017
Illustration by Rohail Safdar
Illustration by Rohail Safdar

The first slap is expected although the terror is about where it will come from.

The first insult hurled is ‘normal’ but the pounding humiliation isn’t.

The first time silence can be deafening but later on, it is music to the ears of many.

Another incident of alleged brutality inside a Lahore prison has surfaced. Despite official proclamations to the contrary, those who have already suffered at the hands of law enforcement seem to suggest that torture inside Punjab prisons remains an ongoing tragedy…

Welcome to Punjab’s prisons — home to some of the most brutal practices of torture employed by law enforcement. There is much happening inside jails but there are barely any answers, certainly not from behind those silent, imposing walls that seem to swallow anyone who enters.

And yet, those who have gone to jail — for just or unjust reasons — return with tales of horror forever etched in their memory. There is fear of physical torture and the feeling of vulnerability. There is utter helplessness and defencelessness. And there are no messiahs to save the day.

This story is a collection of experiences from former convicts and under-trial prisoners (UTPs). Almost all accounts narrate the fear of the unknown; those who were once defiant of the law suddenly have the tables turned on them. And those who were once respectful of the law suddenly find disdain for how the criminal justice system works.


Sohail Yafat’s eyes have lost their shine. A former convict, he was arrested in 2001 for murder under an FIR registered by ‘unknown persons’. After undergoing some dreadful torture in physical remand and then in the Crimes Investigation Agency (CIA), he was sent to the notorious Sahiwal prison as a UTP. Upon conviction he was transferred to Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore. It took 10 years for him to be eventually exonerated.

But even today, as a free man, the memories of the violence that he both experienced firsthand and witnessed in jail shackle him. He is passionate about many things but somewhere deep inside, a hollowness remains — a feeling that is common to those who have spent time behind bars.

“The worst thing in the world is to hear someone crying with pain, yet knowing you cannot even lift a finger to help,” says Yafat. He is among the few former convicts to come on the record for this story. When he was first convicted, life had turned upside down for him — what will happen to his loved ones, how will they survive, will they be able to sustain pressure from society, will anyone believe in his innocence, and of course, what hell is awaiting him inside prison.

The decade that he spent in incarceration, however, seems to have changed his outlook on life. In his words, he has witnessed the depths of savagery that mankind can stoop to.

“It starts with mulahiza,” says Yafat of a prisoner’s first introduction to torture at jail.

Mulahiza [literally ‘inspection’] is an interview with the superintendent of the prison. A group of new prisoners gathers in the courtyard, the scene is something akin to newly enrolled students gathered at a school assembly. But instead of a principal or headmaster, the jail superintendent confronts the prisoners. One by one, the prisoners are called out to appear before the superintendent.

“You stand in front of the superintendent, with two men on either side and one behind you,” recounts Yafat. The three surrounding men are usually prisoners but they can also be jail wardens, according to him.

“Questions are shouted out by a deputy superintendent. With every answer the prisoner gives, he receives a slap on the nape of the neck. It comes unexpectedly at first — and with full force.” The slap is called a ‘thaap’ and nobody is exempt from it.

The mulahiza questions are mostly about personal information and the alleged crime. If a prisoner protests or struggles, he is roughed up some more. The extent of torture depends on the superintendent’s style as an administrator.

“I have seen people bleeding after the mulahiza,” says Yafat.

Another former Sahiwal prison inmate, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that newcomers usually wait the night out, in a place colloquially called the ‘nursery ward’.

“The mulahiza happens early the next morning,” he narrates.

A medical officer (MO) first examines the prisoner, recording the identification marks and evidence of prior violence. Then the deputy superintendent starts barking out the questions.

“The thaap is meant to subdue a prisoner’s ego and to show him who’s in charge,” he says. “They are basically telling the newcomer to forget about the freedoms of his life outside.”

But Yafat says his worst memories from jail are not of the thaap. They are of hearing cries of agonising pain. It all began with a riot.


“I saw two prison riots, both at Sahiwal Central Jail,” says Yafat. “The first happened after a prisoner, Bashir Hanjra, was taken to the punishment block and tortured to death. But the second one was much more violent.” It took place on November 14, 2002. Various prisoners’ accounts point at several reasons.

According to one, junior prison staff orchestrated the riot using some of the prisoners. Several prisoners, who wish to remain unnamed, relate that the then superintendent, Salik Jalal, was pushing for a strict enforcement of rules to end corruption. Prison staff stood to lose considerable income from a well-established system of favours. They say it is routine for prisoners to pay for various facilities and freedoms. According to a couple of accounts, the riot was provoked through talk of a convict’s death from torture.

Others blamed the cruelty they said many prisoners had suffered at the hands of Deputy Superintendent Rai Muhammad Arif. They said mulahiza was the worst under him. He would also frequently order those he wanted to punish into ‘scooter’ position — standing as if riding a motorbike. If somebody fell from fatigue or stumbled, he would beat them up and make them resume the posture.

Arif was set upon by several prisoners during a routine round of the factory area and taken hostage using carpet makers’ tools. Yafat remembers seeing him being led to the top of the control tower. “Next thing, they were trying to force him into the same scooter position.”

Regardless of the reasons, the riot was quite violent while it lasted. And so was its aftermath.

“I saw one of the UTPs walking into one of the control rooms and a warden hit him really hard with a stick on the back of his head,” remembers Yafat. “He literally somersaulted and fell across a water trough. An assistant superintendent rushed over and stopped the warden from hitting him again.”

“I remember one of the wardens beating a prisoner with a pipe,” says Yaseen Bajwa, another former prisoner. “The prisoner was then taken inside the ‘chakkar’ and tortured some more. Once the riot started, some of the prisoners broke through one of the under-construction walls of the barracks that separated the condemned prisoners from the rest and broke their locks.” He says the jail resembled a battlefield, with every man looking out for himself.

Things got so out of control that the Punjab Elite Force was called in.

“Usually the administration does not allow firearms on the premises on account of the possibility of a prisoner gaining control of one.” says Bajwa. “But they did not hesitate this time and there was a lot of blind firing. I saw a death-row prisoner shot down. He was merely sitting on the barracks wall, watching what went on.”

They say, after three years of being behind bars, a prisoner feels the fatigue within him; after five years he himself becomes a tormentor
They say, after three years of being behind bars, a prisoner feels the fatigue within him; after five years he himself becomes a tormentor

A newspaper report says that in November 2002, condemned prisoner Muhammad Ejaz was shot dead, and 39 others were injured when police opened fire to quell a battle between prisoners and jail employees. Another report — this one published in Dawn — makes the claim that a dispute arose when jail staff tried to shift a prisoner.

“The dispute soon turned into rioting and the prisoners started pelting stones in anguish,” claims the report. “They broke the cells of the condemned prisoners, and freed around 150 prisoners and rushed towards the main gate to climb it.”

The riot eventually stopped with the jail superintendent negotiating with the prisoners.

Late that night, both Yafat and Bajwa say, the lights went out throughout the jail. A troupe of jail personnel then came to the barracks and read out a list of names. They led away some of the prisoners.

Bajwa says they were taken to various areas in the jail to be tortured as punishment. Yafat says he remembers their screams.

“The whole night I could hear them howling like banshees, separated it seemed by only a wall,” he recounts. “In the morning, there were splashes of blood and clumps of hair

at several places. God knows what was done to them!”

He says he also saw pieces and splinters of the sticks they were beaten with.

Bajwa says he and a cousin were among those beaten up. “I was beaten to a pulp. My cousin lost an eye and his calf bone was smashed,” he says.

Next, some of the prisoners were transferred to other jails under what is known as a ‘qusoori challan’ — alluding to the central role played by the accused in an act of indiscipline and disobedience. This is a standard procedure in all jails.

What happens under a qusoori challan is that a notification is issued by a jail superintendent to transfer a prisoner to another jail for “administrative reasons” such as overcrowding. This is then approved by the Inspector General of Prisons, a small formality in the larger scheme of things.

But the truth is less sanitised.

The qusoori challan is often misused and abused as a form of inflicting greater torture to an inmate. The accused are taught a lesson in disciplining at another prison, often in a separate block constructed for torture purposes. In fact, the punishment block is essentially a jail within a jail. At the Sahiwal Jail it is called the Saat [7] Block at Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat it is referred to as Chalees [40] Chakki. There are other names for it at other prisons. Under prison regulations, a prisoner is to be kept segregated if he becomes a threat to others or if he has misbehaved (Section 28, Prisons Act, 1894). Most of those sent there have caused commotion or led riots. But, inmates say, jail officials wield discretionary power to send anyone there.

“A prisoner’s blood curdles at the very mention of the Punishment Block,” says Ibrar Shah, previously a munshi at the central control room. “By the time they reach there, they are already in pretty bad shape from the torture.”

Jalal, now DIG Headquarters (Prisons) says that no torture followed the Sahiwal Jail riot. “There were some bad elements, who did not like me for enforcing the rules,” he says. “I was probably the first to see that a new menu was introduced.”

Jalal says that some of the prisoners regularly had food brought from their home until the authorities took notice of this and tried to stop the practice by improving the food inside. Most of the prisoners were fine with that, he says. He says there were exceptions. “They were addicted to their own oil and ghee toppings,” he says.

“The riot was also a reaction to my efforts to control corruption. These things happen when you try to straighten the crooked.”

While most former convicts agree that the condemned prisoner who was killed in the Elite Force action was merely sitting on the wall watching the riot, Salik maintains that he was trying to escape. “There were others as well climbing the wall. That is construed as jail break. Action is taken accordingly.”

He insists that there was no follow-up torture.


A Dawn report from November 25, 2002, said that those involved in the Sahiwal Jail riot were still being tortured. The report said that they were not allowed any visitors and that some of them had been transferred to other prisons.

“Many of them were in a bad state after the torture,” remembers Yafat. “We heard that some of them died on their way while being taken to other facilities. Of course, official records would never show how they actually died.”

Salik was asked for the record for the purpose of this story. His response: “It cannot be found.”

Mian Farooq Nazeer, until recently inspector general of Punjab Prisons, says that there is no question about any form of torture in jail. “We have a zero tolerance policy for corruption and for torture,” he says. “Such practices may have been rampant in the past. I tried to enforce the rules.”

He says there are two types of problems inside jails, one is an organised corruption racket and the other is corruption on an individual level.

“It is easier to catch the organised racket but not so simple to stop individual wheeling and dealing,” he says. “Whenever such a case comes to light, we dismiss the officer involved immediately. Recently, I have dismissed some people from the Multan jail.”

He claims that authorities do not resort to physical violence unless a prisoner is aggressive and asking for it. “In such cases, we have the right to defend ourselves if the prisoner is being aggressive.”

But Dr Khurram Sohail Raja, general secretary of the Pakistan Society of Forensic Medicine, says that he has seen cases of torture in custody throughout his time as a medico-legal professional.

“In Faisalabad district alone, there are over 200 cases of police torture a year — and these are only the reported cases. These include cases from jails,” he says.

In the past six months, says the doctor, there have been four reported cases of jail torture. And on Wednesday, December 6, 2017, the family of a Lahori man who died in police custody alleged that he was tortured to death by his jailers. Police officials insisted, however, that he died “due to his drug addiction”.

Dr Raja recalls a previous case, that of a man who had both his thigh bones broken by prison staff. Many cases, he says, are never presented because it has been too long or because there are no visible injuries. Most victims never take up their cases in court. Criminal lawyers, who meet inmates on an everyday basis, also rubbish the claims that torture is a story of the past. An advocate who wishes to remain anonymous says he has handled several cases of juvenile crime. He says that the claim of a Pakistani prison without physical and mental torture, including sexual violence, is “laughable”.

Punjab Police is known for its heavy-handedness even in full view of the public
Punjab Police is known for its heavy-handedness even in full view of the public

Tariq Siraj, a Sialkot-based lawyer, says he saw some dreadful things in jail after he was framed by a political rival.

“One of the most horrifying cases of torture I know of was when a drug mule was tortured,” he says. “He had brought a contraband package hidden in a body cavity. When the jailers found out, they sodomised him with vegetables sprinkled with spice.”

Such extreme actions are rare. But then there are other, more common, methods.

For instance ‘falakka’ — the beating of soles of the feet with a cane — is quite frequent. This is preferred by law enforcement personnel because the marks of such torture are less easy to spot. There is also strappado — when a man is left hanging by his arms. This can result in the dislocation of shoulders. Another form of torture popular with jail staff is ‘jahaaz banana’ [make into an aeroplane]. The victim is held in the air by four people, each holding a limb while two others beat him with a ‘chhittar’ [whip] made out of tyre rubber.

“You get really disoriented,” says Siraj, who says he was beaten up, though mercifully only with hands.

“The superintendent was paid a large amount of money to torture me,” he alleges.

Another form of torture is ‘kawwa banana’ [make into a crow] — where a person squats, bending forward, with a rod passing through behind the knees. The victim is kept in the posture for hours, hampering blood circulation.

Former prisoners say they saw this in both Kot Lakhpat and Sahiwal prisons.


While torture at police stations is meant to force confessions and supposedly facilitate investigation, in jails there are other reasons for it. First of all, there is the failure to prosecute the perpetrator. This and the rampant criminal economy are a deadly mix.

There are those who readily pay for the smallest of facilities and those who do not. They are made to pay by setting an example: ‘see what happens to those who don’t pay.’

The jail insulates not just the prisoners but also the wardens and the superintendents from the world outside. A prison guard is not a very powerful man in the world outside, but inside he wields incredible power over people.

A central issue around the phenomenon of brutal torture inside jails is that, despite international pressure, Pakistan has no law which criminalises torture.

“Some of the jail staff simply loves to torture prisoners,” says Siraj. “I won’t paint everyone with the same brush, but when there is a system of abuse, it starts being accepted as standard. Yes, the police are guilty of a lot of abuse, but the prison staff ... they think they can get away even with stealing your death shroud.”

A jail official notorious for torture, currently stationed at the Adiala Jail, was known as Chacha Giddar Kut. Prisoners remember him as a man who revelled in torture.

“He used to carry a baton and his hand would never be still,” says Yafat. “When he was not hitting a prisoner, he would be poking or hitting anybody who was passing by. When no one was within an arm’s length, he would start hitting his own boots with it!”

The unique problem with the jails is that their secrets are more likely to remain within their walls. Kot Lakhpat is often even called Kot Lakh-Laanat [Kot ‘Cursed’] by the prisoners. They say, after three years of being behind bars, a prisoner feels the fatigue within him; after five years he himself becomes a tormentor. Many convicts are thus used to abuse other prisoners.

Organised corruption, too, supports torture. Those with money and influence can pay their way out of torture. They can also pay for a little extra fresh air, a little more movement across the barracks and the use of cell phones, even drugs.


The legal framework of the prison system has been inherited largely from British India.

“The British in India were using this prison system as an instrument of punitive measures instead of a reformative centre in order to suppress freedom fighters and other political opponents,” according to Human Rights Violations in Prisons by Assistant Professor of Law Muhammad Zubair and Sadia Khattak (2014) of Abdul Wali Khan University.

“Even the UTPs face staggering levels of torture under judicial custody,” says lawyer Saroop Ijaz, the Country Representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A central issue around the phenomenon of brutal torture inside jails is that, despite international pressure, Pakistan has no law which criminalises torture.

“Usually Article 14 of the Constitution — “Dignity of Man” — is used and interpreted to constitute as protection against torture,” says Ijaz. “This is because there is no specific law, not even a definition of torture, especially in sync with international laws.”

Section 337-K of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) provides punishment for torture as 10 years in prison, but torture remains undefined. The UNCAT (United Nations Convention Against Torture) came about in 1987. Pakistan ratified it in 2010. An anti-torture law was drafted but never approved.

The lawyer explains that despite there being a provision in the PPC regarding “Mistreatment of Authority”, very rarely is anyone convicted. More than anything, torture is viewed as a ‘disciplinary offense’ rather than as a crime. Combined with outdated colonial laws and rules which are meant to keep the population in check rather than reform them, this creates a very enabling environment.

More importantly, there is also a doubtful system of addressing complaints.

“If a prisoner has a grievance, he can only complain to the jail superintendent or the district judge,” says Ijaz. “Once convicted, the prisoner hardly comes to court so he is cut off more or less. Meanwhile, the jail superintendent is an interested party, so complaints can’t really be fleshed out if they reach him. There is always an incentive to keep them hidden so controversy can be shunned. [Complainants] can petition the court — but there is a failure of the judiciary, because rarely is any action taken.”

The HRW representative suggests that lawyers should be able to call for independent medical examinations, or the court itself should be recognising torture signs, but the fact is that torture is usually done in such a way that no obvious signs are left.

“The point is that there are ways around [the barriers to complaining], but most cost money,” says Ijaz. “And if you have money then you’d most probably rather pay it inside the jail so that they don’t torture you in the first place.”

Another method is for legal aid itself to reach out for inmates and help them, rather than waiting for them to come out and ask for help.

“We formed a network of more than 20 organisations called the Anti-Torture Alliance (ATA),” says Bushra Khaliq, focal person of ATA. “We developed the draft anti-torture bill through a series of discussions and consultations with parliamentarians and lawyers among several others. It was an all-encompassing law covering all aspects of custodial torture, but the matter remains in limbo.”

The Senate of Pakistan passed the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape Bill in January 2015 after it was moved by Senator Farhatullah Babar in August 2014. The National Assembly was supposed to take up the Bill next but did not. “Thus criminalisation of custodial torture is still an unfinished agenda in Pakistan,” she laments.

Meanwhile, Yafat’s life has a new chapter. Prisoners are known to age fast and Yafat wants to make the most of his experiences.

“I was one of the fortunate ones in terms of the physical pain I went through,” says Yafat. “Still, sometimes it feels as if my soul is shattered.”

There is redemption of sorts in his work as a criminal defence investigator with a legal aid organisation named Justice Project Pakistan, where he deals with complaints of torture in jails. A full recovery, he says, may take the rest of his life.


According to the United Nations definition, the term torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him/her or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @XariJalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 10th, 2017



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