Police torture: A product of Pakistan's authoritarian political values?

It may very well be the case.
Updated Sep 14, 2019 08:14am

About a decade ago, in March 2010, newspapers thronged with articles on police torture following an incident in Chiniot in which suspects accused of street crimes were stripped, tortured and publicly humiliated by policemen outside a police station.

The videos of the incident led to public outcry. A suo motu notice was taken. The Supreme Court ordered the Punjab government to "shut down private torture cells being run by the police, make drastic changes in police training manuals, maintain strict discipline and hold senior police officers, including inspector general, accountable."

The media reported that some 150 torture cells were being run in Lahore by the Punjab Police, outside the premises of police stations, where policemen were usually employing five methods of torture: physical, hygienic, deprivation, psychological and humiliation.

The police felt targeted, embarrassed and demoralised. The then Inspector General of Punjab Police said the public was "abusing [the police] more than the Indian army." The Supreme Court instructed the Inspector, "tell your police force not to obey illegal or unconstitutional orders."

Senior police officers told other police officers to follow "scientific methods" of interrogation. The low-ranked policemen involved, including the Station House Officer, were arrested. The Deputy Superintendent of Police was suspended.

Sounds familiar? It should. The more things change…

A year later, in August 2011, two young brothers were lynched to death in the presence of police officers in Sialkot. A few months later, reports of a torture cell within Crime Investigation Agency headquarters in Lahore (the Kotwali Office) made the rounds.

In 2018, a young boy was sexually assaulted inside a private torture cell near Lahore, while one police official video recorded the assault. In the first week of September of this year alone, we have learned about the tragic deaths of Salahuddin Ahmed, Amjad Ali and Amir Masih.

Related: Police torture is rife. When will the state legislate against it?

Last year, Advocate Javeria Younes presented her research on custodial torture in Pakistan. She surveyed lawyers, social activists, members of law enforcement agencies and torture victims in five major cities across Pakistan.

She found that in addition to torture being used as an instrument to extract evidence, it is also "encouraged and abetted by the state to maintain its writ", explaining why police officers and the public alike complain that there is a lack of political will to reform police departments and improve the culture of civilian policing.

Based on the records of Madadgaar Helpline, Younes found that between 2009 and 2013, there had been a dramatic increase in the incidents of torture of both men and women. In 2008, Madadgaar Helpline had published its own findings based on reported incidents of police torture across Pakistan between January and June. It found that in those six months, 743 cases of police torture had been reported, predominantly from Punjab (406) with Sindh being the second worse (304).

A comparison of provincial capitals showed 177 cases of police torture reported in Lahore in this period, against 45 in Karachi. In the cases studied, ‘torture’ included a variety of techniques ranging from murder to rape, illegal detention, physical torture and harassment.

Today, a handful of legal frameworks safeguard civilians from torture in police custody. The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits causing ‘hurt’ for extracting confessions (but does not use the word ‘torture’). Article 14(2) of the Constitution prohibits torture in custody and states, "No person shall be subjected to torture for the purpose of extracting evidence." Article 10 of the Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Section 176 of the Criminal Procedure Code demands a magisterial inquiry in cases of custodial deaths, but as is common knowledge, such inquiries seldom take place.

Despite these provisions, as Sarah Belal, executive director of the Justice Project Pakistan, has stressed, torture needs to be criminalised and outlawed. A bill criminalising torture was tabled in the National Assembly in 2014 but has yet to be passed into law. (The proposed Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Act 2015 was cleared by the Senate in 2015).

Symbols of law and ‘terror’?

When focusing on police torture, it is customary now to start by acknowledging its colonial roots. In 1855, the Madras Torture Commission produced a 400-page document that showed how revenue authorities had been misusing their powers of policing and brutally extracting revenue from the poor. But even after the Torture Commission had carried out inquiry and subsequent reform committees highlighted this issue, police abuse remained rampant.

In her study on torture under colonial rule in India, Anupama Rao analysed how allegations of torture against the colonial regime and police were side stepped when responsibility was transferred to pre-colonial regimes and torture was seen as a legacy of "'native' practices of punishment."

There is similarly a tendency in Pakistan to distance police administrators and their political masters from allegations of police misconduct, by transferring blame onto colonial laws and continuities and not the current politics of policing that thrive on the institutional weaknesses of our police organisations.

Read next: What the Sahiwal shooting tells us about police culture

Given that we have been independent for over seven decades, we must ask: are colonial policies, practices and laws perhaps suiting our political actors, its civil and military establishments, and serving their interests? What else explains such blatant lack of will towards institutional reform, inconsistencies in the application of existing laws and utter disregard for procedural justice?

The prevalence of police use of excessive and lethal force continues to raise these and many other questions. In the 1990s, then interior minister, General (retired) Naseerullah Babar, propagated and popularised the idea of "fighting terror with terror." This statement reflected not only Babar’s military background, but it also foregrounded the idea of police terror that was present both before and after Pakistan’s independence, and capitalised on it.

In 1973, an opinion in an English-language daily had criticised the "custodians of law and order, namely, the police… [for] contributing their share in spreading terror among the people." In 1984, I. A. Rehman wrote,

"Our police know only one method of investigation. Investigation more often than not means extraction of confession under physical pressure. True, the law does not accept confessions obtained under duress. Still the practice continues because the police officers know that once a confession, however secured, is substantiated with evidence uncovered by the accused, the latter will be much too concerned with the risk of conviction to complain of violence inflicted on him."

Thirty five years and a generation of police officers later, informal and extralegal procedures and practices remain unchanged, and the philosophy of fighting terror with terror has become institutionalised. In the 90s’ operations in Karachi, both the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Sindh Police were known for utilising lethal techniques for gutting out information from individuals in their confinement.

It was through the reports of the Crime Investigation Agency’s torture cells, established for political victimisation, that the practice of cheera entered into public conscience as a method used by select police officials to cause excruciating pain to the detained suspect by pulling his legs apart and stretching them in opposite directions, suddenly or gradually.

On its part, the MQM had similarly established its torture centres to mirror the practices of the police and inflict excessive violence on those accused of spying on behalf of the police and intelligence agencies, escalating a vicious cycle of torture and terror that was symbolised in the bori band laash.

This human rights crisis in Karachi, a product of torture, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of political opponents designated as ‘terrorists’ has continued in the ongoing Karachi Operation since 2013, legitimised through narratives of counterterrorism and partly legalised through frameworks such as the Protection of Pakistan Act, 2014 and the amendments to the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act.

Over the years, news reports and investigations by journalists have provided in-depth insights into torture and killings in police custody and illegal detentions. In 2010, in the aftermath of the incident in Chiniot, one journalist quoted a deputy superintendent of the Punjab Police as claiming,

"Punishments in public create fear of the police among the public, and believe me 80 per cent of the crime is controlled in this way… The low-ranked police officials who are 'famous' for using third degree means are very popular among the high officials and many of them are deputed as investigation officers to control crimes and criminals."

Also popular are police officials who can be patronised by politicians for carrying out politically motivated violence. Accounts of torture detail not just the perpetration of violence on the part of police officials, but have also exposed the nexus between crime, politics and policing.

In recent history, this has been evidenced in Karachi in the case of the Lyari gang war, where gang leaders, themselves patronised by political parties, were able to select which police officials would be posted at the police stations within Lyari. This selection could then determine which police officials would be complicit in the torture and even murder of rival gang members.

Dawn Investigations: Rao Anwar and the killing fields of Karachi

The killing of Arshad Pappu is a case in point. In 2013, acting on the behest of Uzair Baloch and the People’s Amn Committee, three police inspectors abducted Baloch’s rival Pappu and delivered him to the former. Pappu’s brutal murder and beheading was video recorded and widely circulated. Although the inspectors were arrested, the buck stopped there when it should have passed on to the scapegoaters complicit in police use of lethal force.

In 2015, a serving senior officer of the Sindh Police publicly distinguished between the half fry and full fry, a formula used to symbolise methods of police use of excessive and lethal force. Half fry referred to the torture of suspects in police custody, while full fry referred to their extrajudicial killings. In a statement, the officer said,

"Extrajudicial killings and other actions cannot be justified officially but society has come to accept this 'modus operandi' of police to eradicate crimes and make streets safer... You can see police have restored peace and order in the city through this modus operandi."

This statement echoes the multitude of claims made during this operation in Karachi as well as those of the 90s. What it also reflects is the belief held by certain police officers (and perhaps many members of our society) that such modus operandi is essential, legitimate and justified, if not legally then morally.

Such attitudes towards vigilantism on the part of the police have been witnessed most staunchly in the pedestalisation of police personalities such as Chaudhry Aslam and Rao Anwar and the reliance on police encounter killings by both civilian and military regimes in Pakistan.

A selective review of the literature

Pakistan-centric research on policing has a long way to go. Nevertheless, a handful of studies provide important insights on police violence. In 2008, for example, Chaudhry et al. examined over 1,800 victims of alleged police torture who were patients at the office of the Surgeon Medico legal in Lahore.

In their study, they found that majority of the victims of police torture were men (91.5 per cent) and those who belonged to lower socio-economic groups, such as the labour class from rural areas, were victimised most frequently. In their description of the methods used against these victims, they write that torture techniques included physical trauma caused by blunt objects, rolling heavy objects over victims’ bodies, placing them over ice blocks, suspending them in air (by their limbs, or upside down).

Physical torture was recorded through visible injuries ranging from skin abrasions to bone fractures. Body parts most targeted during torture techniques included buttocks, soles of feet, chest, thighs, palms and wrists. Victims were predominantly tortured by sticks and "broad, flat leather slipper(s) dipped in mustard oil to increase the impact of pain."

Also read: 'Mr President, grant mercy to my daughter who was tortured into a false murder confession'

In 2012, Mirza et al. carried out a cross-sectional, autopsy-based study over a period of six years (2005-2010) on custodial deaths in Karachi, examining 61 cases of which 21pc were homicidal deaths occurring from physical trauma resulting from torture. The study does not, however, indicate whether such torture was inflicted by police and prison officials or fellow prisoners.

In 2017, scholars at the Heavy Industries Taxila, Wah and Rawalpindi Medical Colleges published a study based on 318 autopsies performed at a hospital in Rawalpindi in 2015. They found that, of these, at least eight people (seven males, one female) died due to police torture in Rawalpindi, most likely during interrogation.

In 2012, Asad Jamal wrote on extrajudicial executions for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In his discussion on custodial deaths, Jamal found that between 1992 and 2009, the number of deaths in police custody had declined, demonstrating that trends can shift over time.

Jamal recognises though that such statistics do not include the many incidents of police abuse that do not get reported. Additionally, the report stresses that this decline was likely due to growing media coverage of such incidents following which the identities of both victims and perpetrators are revealed, and not necessarily due to cultural changes within the police or any significant policy changes more generally.

As research by a police officer Kamran Adil shows, police violence continues to be legitimised when it is said to be ‘necessary’ for extracting evidence, controlling crime (through encounter killings, for example) or in compliance with court orders. Such legitimation hardly makes all forms of police violence legal and is likely to allow the repetition of such practices (torture and extrajudicial killings), even if the presence of watchdogs periodically deters the police and their patrons.

In-depth: How not to improve law and order in Karachi

In 2014, Justice Project Pakistan and Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic published a detailed report on police torture in Faisalabad. The report was based on allegations of police abuse and misconduct in Faisalabad between 2006 and 2018, and relied on 1,867 medio-legal certificates for physician evaluations, interviews with victims of police abuse and a review of existing laws. The researchers found that in 1,424 of the 1,867 cases of alleged police abuse (76pc), physicians had confirmed signs of physical abuse.

In 2016, Najm-ul-Sahr-Ata-Ullah and Saroop Ijaz wrote an extensive report for the Human Rights Watch that documented custodial torture, extrajudicial killings and other forms of police abuse in Pakistan. In the introductory section, they quote a police officer: "My staff and I are expected to be on duty 24 hours a day. We are perpetually exhausted…. How can you expect people to work under such conditions and not crack?"

The report is one of the few that adequately acknowledges the limitations and pressures of the police, exposing the institutional fault lines and their exploitation by powerful social elites (politicians, landowners, civil and military bureaucracy). It is this exploitation by powerful elites that, I believe, should be thoroughly investigated in future research.

A call for institutional introspection

Recently, a senior police officer explained to me that the police has used torture primarily for the following purposes: (1) to extract confessions, (2) to effect recoveries of stolen items (such as the recent torture of a Vehari woman by the police), (3) to make extra money and (4) to appease a ‘master’ or a political patron (such as the torture of the MQM party workers).

In other discussions, police officers have pointed out that the use of torture and extrajudicial practices by select police officials give the rest of the institution a ‘bad name’.

Countless recommendations have been provided by journalists, analysts and police officers on how to positively change police organisations in Pakistan. These range from investments in police recruitment, training and education, to independent oversight mechanisms that ensure accountability (internal and external) and transparency, to higher salaries for police officials and better resources for police stations and units and the digitisation of policing (including installing cameras inside police lock-ups).

All of these are strong recommendations and I don’t doubt that police reform and freedom from police torture go hand in hand, as police officers themselves have recognised.

Based on some of the readings above and my own research on policing, I want to offer a few reasons as to why police officers themselves should rethink encouraging police abuse or ignoring its prevalence.

Police abuse corrupts institutional memory:

The continued reliance upon torture and similar methods teaches low-ranked police officials that acting outside and above the law, through informal procedures and practices, is routine and justified.

It tells them that confessions extracted through torture and the elimination of criminals will amount to positive professional achievements and good performance that will guarantee them job security and accelerated promotions, not to mention the fattening up that comes with financial benefits often accrued by policemen appeasing their political patrons.

Explore: Punjab's 'encounters' with sectarianism

New recruits are groomed by this thinking when they enter the organisation and it passes down to others, generation after generation, which explains why every few years we see an outcry over police abuse, ranging from torture to extrajudicial killings.

As Faisal Ali Raja, a senior police manager, has adequately stated, "the behavioral change under a controlled environment at training colleges and schools is quite easy, but the real challenge begins when a fresh recruit starts working in the field." The education the officer receives on the job has a fundamental role to play in how fairly or unfairly he or she will behave with civilians.

It furthers the politicisation of policing

As Zaigham Khan recently wrote, "without the police, elections can’t be won, properties can’t be seized and retained, and adversaries can’t be tamed." Knowing that select police officials and officers can be employed for extralegal purposes, other state institutions rely on the police for carrying out their dirty work.

This means that the civilian police remains vulnerable to external political influences and demands and can be utilised as a tool for political killings and for suppressing dissent, opposition and other challenges to the status quo.

Op-ed: Roots of custodial deaths

The police routinely claims that it is under pressure to deliver. This delivery of police performance in the form of forced confessions and extrajudicial killings raises important questions on the politics behind policing. Who is authorising such practices? Where are these pressures coming from? Police officers know the sources better than anyone else.

Those who resist politicisation are vulnerable to transfers and suspensions. Those who don’t, expose the rest of the rank-and-file to these external pressures, becoming – actively or passively – enablers of police politicisation and subsequent abuse of power. Given that all policing is political, this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of this profession.

It erodes police legitimacy:

Public trust in police organisations in Pakistan has generally been low. Allegations of torture and killings further undermine the reputation of police officers and result in civilians harbouring a negative image of the police, even if they have never actually interacted with police officers, because of a perception of the thaana culture.

This means that civilians will be less likely to respect the authority of police officials or believe that the police is the institution most adequate for maintaining order and public safety, encouraging them to look elsewhere (to private or paramilitary agents, for example). A lack of public legitimacy keeps the police demoralised, and police officers cynical.

It evidences an authoritarian subculture of policing:

Police culture generally has a poor reputation with embedded aspects such as cynicism, machoism, suspicion, discrimination, conservatism and authoritarianism routinely highlighted. This is of course grossly reductive, and it misses the important and complicated nuances within organisational cultures, as well as their many positive attributes.

No doubt, not all police officers are mindlessly authoritarian. But practices and procedures can nevertheless be authoritarian in nature, and they may very well be a product of authoritarian political values in a country that projects itself as a democracy, which creates space for an authoritarian subculture within police departments.

Authoritarian subcultures within organisations resist transparency, accountability and change; focus is on exerting control and power; prioritise maintaining the writ of the state by force; and counter the efforts of well-meaning officers who spend their careers dealing with the crises of police-community relations.

The more things change…

In 1974, prominent political scientist Eqbal Ahmad wrote an article Pakistan – Signposts to a police state, where he critically analysed the events, policies and practices during the then Pakistan People's Party regime.

He warned that in Pakistan, repressive measures are increasing, as could be witnessed through an expanding national security sector, the militarisation of the police, bureaucracy and civil society, the institutionalisation of terror, clampdowns on media, the creation of specialised police units (such as the Federal Security Force) and "the obvious indifference being shown to 'unofficial' violence and terrorism against opponents of the government, and the emerging practice of systematic torture of prisoners."

Although police torture featured marginally in Ahmad’s article, it was contextualised as being indicative of increasing authoritarianism in Pakistan. I believe his insights are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago.

Are you working on police reforms? Write to us at prism@dawn.com