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Custodial torture

August 26, 2018

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THE notion of a ‘naya Pakistan’ has collectively fascinated everyone. Where there is anxiety, there is excitement. Where there is encouragement, there is detraction. But everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan will look like.

Regime change is always tricky — particularly for human rights activists. So PTI leader Naeemul Haque’s tweet promising to ban police torture was particularly welcome. It comes at the heels of a ground-breaking probe being held by the National Commission on Human Rights into nearly 1,424 cases of police torture, based on the government’s own evidence, uncovered by Justice Project Pakistan in just one district of Punjab over a six-year period.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In a first, 13 police officials were called to record their testimonies into severe allegations of torture. This inquiry is the basis to meaningful reform if accountability, so central to the PTI’s ethos, begins to inform police culture. The incoming government would do well to keep an eye on the inquiry’s findings.

People are always surprised to learn that there is no comprehensive legislation that outlaws police torture in Pakistan. But it would certainly explain why it keeps happening to men, women and children alike.

The consequences of police brutality go far beyond the physical.

Huriya and her husband were attacked by police officers in their home in Faisalabad without explanation. They kicked her, very deliberately in the abdomen, despite her screaming that she was pregnant. On a mere suspicion of theft, the police brutalised the couple for 15 minutes — only stopping when Huriya fell unconscious. Unsurprisingly, she miscarried.

Just recently, a 12-year-old child was found handcuffed in a lock-up in Larkana and kept in a detention cell with adult offenders. He was lucky that a judge conducted a raid on the station. He could have stayed there for months had they not arrived to witness chains bigger than his childish wrists keeping him standing for hours. He says the police threatened to shoot him in the knees.

Even people who seek the police’s intervention to protect them are often subjected to harassment, which often gets physical if they persist. A man in Faisalabad tried to lodge an FIR over a money dispute. In response, they booked him instead. That’s what he got for trying to file a complaint against those who enjoy local police’s patronage. He was beaten with sticks so badly that his eyesight and hearing were permanently damaged. They made his young son watch. Had there been a computerised system to register FIRs, like the one the PTI installed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, perhaps his reality would have been different.

The consequences of police brutality go far beyond the physical. Our entire criminal justice system is worse off for it. Interrogations centred around getting answers, and not necessarily the correct ones, mean that actual perpetrators walk free. The use of torture is often the answer when a suspect is unable to bribe their way out of it. This has led many innocent people to wrongful convictions and sentences. Many prisoners, who do survive being brutalised, end up being sent to the gallows purely on the basis of torture-induced confessions. Torture may not kill them immediately, but it is certainly what takes their lives.

A bill that criminalised torture was first tabled in parliament in 2014, but in the four years since, the National Assembly has been unable to pass it into law. The PML-N government put forth a national Action Plan for Human Rights in February, 2016. It set a six-month deadline to pass the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape Bill. Why it did not prioritise it is a question that perhaps can now be answered by the PTI’s swift action on this matter.

It is no small feat that the spokesperson of Pakistan’s governing party has committed to remedying this legal lacuna, where other governments have failed. The PTI has often been congratulated for its extensive police reforms in KP. Depoliticising the police through a merit-based recruitment system is a first step to eradicate corruption in the force. But for this to take root, the motivation to torture must be removed.

Torture has remained politically, socially and morally acceptable as a practice for a police force that is resource-strapped, desensitised and overburdened. The police must be provided enough resources to reliably investigate crime, not resort to beating the answer out of defendants. If the police are well-paid, then bribes become less appealing to take from the poor — who bear the brunt of police torture, as Mr Haque correctly identified.

Criminalising torture would be testament to the PTI’s commitment to justice, and long-repeated promises of equalising everyone before the law. Just like Mr Khan, we have waited too long for this opportunity.

The writer is executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @SarahBelal_

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2018