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Focus on torture

February 21, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE increasing incidence of torture in countries engaged in fighting terrorism has persuaded the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) to create a new Working Group on ‘Torture and Terrorism’. The deliberations of the group at its inaugural meeting in Tunis earlier this month were extremely relevant to Pakistan.

The conference tone was set by Mokhtar Trifi, OMCT vice president from Tunisia, when he said that anti-torture activists saw almost daily how the legitimate fight against violent extremism was subverted to justify torture. “While no one is above the law,” he said, “no one is below the threshold of the law either, whatever the crime one is accused of”.

The members of the group, who were on the front lines of the ‘war against terrorism’ in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, complained of facing increased public acceptance of torture in their countries. The delegate from the Gulf region spoke for the group when he said: “The biggest travesty is that states abuse the fight against terrorism to target human rights defenders, the very people we need to support the fight against violent extremists.” One would like to hope that the group’s recommendations will receive due consideration by Islamabad.

There is no denying that torture is endemic in Pakistan. The constitutional guarantee against torture is limited to prohibition of torture for extracting evidence and even this provision is not respected. Most of the people charged with a criminal offence are tortured till they ‘confess’, even to crimes they have not committed. The police know of no nonviolent methods of investigation/ interrogation. Pakistan has also often being criticised for allowing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment for persons accused of not only criminal but also civil offences.

Police in Pakistan know of no non-violent methods of investigation or interrogation.

Apart from torture during investigation of crimes, and torture as a punishment for jail offences, enforced disappearances are instances of extreme torture caused not only to the victims but also to their families. The National Accountability Bureau’s practice of arresting people before any FIR is registered and holding them in detention for months on end amounts to torture. Even the Supreme Court’s censure of violation of suspects’ dignity of person has had little effect on NAB.

Several cases of horrible torture inflicted on teenaged maidservants have been reported over the past few years and yet no effective law to eliminate domestic violence has been made. Corporal punishment meted out to schoolchildren was once described as part of Pakistani culture by some members of a Senate standing committee.

One significant matter of concern is the extended detention of suspects at special internment centres, safe houses and private premises that are not subject to the control of prison departments. In this regard, Pakistan has been urged to ratify the optional protocol to the Convention against Torture. The objective of the protocol is to establish a system of regular visits undertaken by national and international bodies to places where people are detained.

Pakistan ratified the Convention against Torture in 2009 and its initial report on compliance with it did not impress the UN Committee against Torture. The committee’s concluding observations made in May 2017 should be accepted as the country’s agenda for eliminating torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Pakistan has been asked to:

— “Ensure that officials ... at the highest levels unambiguously reaffirm the absolute prohibition of torture and publicly condemn all practices of torture”, and issue “a clear warning that anyone committing such acts or otherwise complicit or participating in torture will be held personally responsible before the law...;

— “Take measures to ensure that all police officers ... are prohibited by law from engaging in torture, as under the 2002 Police Order applicable” in parts of the country;

— “Ensure that police officers who engage in torture are prosecuted and punished with penalties that are commensurate with the gravity of the offence of torture, as required by Article 4 of the Convention;

— “Train police officers and security forces on the absolute ban on torture, the provisions of the Convention, and forensic evidence-gathering techniques that will reduce their reliance on securing confessions as the basis for criminal investigations”...;

— “Take effective measures to ensure that persons who file complaints concerning conduct amounting to torture, witnesses to torture and their families are protected against harassment and intimidation; ...

— “Consider creating a mechanism independent of the police hierarchy with the capacity to receive complaints, investigate and address all allegations of torture; ...

— “Take all necessary measures to ensure that all allegations of torture or ill-treatment are promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigated by a fully independent civilian body, that perpetrators are duly prosecuted and, if found guilty, convicted with penalties that are commensurate with the grave nature of their crimes;

— “Amend the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation and the amendment to the Army Act of 2015 to eliminate retrospective immunity...

— “End the ... use of paramilitary forces to carry out law enforcement tasks and ensure that complaints of torture ... are investigated” and the perpetrators prosecuted.

— “Repeal or amend the Anti-Terrorism Act and other relevant legislation to ensure that ... persons deprived of their liberty have access to legal safeguards against torture...”

— To make a law that defines torture and prescribes penalties for its perpetrators.

The government must also try to implement the recommendations relating to the elimination of torture made in the latest Universal Periodic Review.

Postscript: There has been a happy turn of events for Baba Jan, Pakistan’s most prominent prisoner of conscience and victim of torture. The calls by civil society activists for his removal from prison to a hospital for treatment of severe chest pain did reach the security forces and he was taken to the Military Hospital and the DHQ in Gilgit. He is now being treated for a stomach ailment. This is the time to end the baseless case against the hugely popular social and political activist, a case that has caused endless embarrassment to Gilgit-Baltistan’s political leaders.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2019