Avenging Salahuddin

September 24, 2019


The writer is a human rights lawyer working at the Law and Policy Chambers in Islamabad.
The writer is a human rights lawyer working at the Law and Policy Chambers in Islamabad.

SALAHUDDIN Ayubi, a young man who died almost a month ago at the hands of the police, was like a character out of a Saadat Hasan Manto novel. Mentally handicapped from birth, our society never had any place for him. This isolation probably led him to frequently run away from home. Eventually, out of desperation, Salahuddin’s family tattooed their contact details on his arm, hoping beyond hope that they would be called if he ever got into any trouble.

Salahuddin allegedly became involved in a life of petty crime. We don’t know if that is the truth, because he never lived for his trial. Regardless, one can forgive these allegations even if true, given his mental condition. Eventually, in August, a video of him emerged from an ATM in Faisalabad, turning him into a national sensation because of a taunt he made at the camera as he wrestled with the ATM. Who knew then that Salahuddin’s taunt would evoke our national conscience and act as a haunting critique of our systems of justice as his story continued to unfold?

Eventually captured and arrested by the police in Rahim Yar Khan, Salahuddin’s story should have ended there — with his family being contacted; an independent investigation into his alleged crimes; a trial; and maybe, hopefully, him getting the help he required from the state. But unfortunately, like all of Manto’s famous short stories, Salahuddin’s saga quickly became a tragedy.

Within a mere 24 hours of his arrest, Salahuddin was dead. Within a few hours of his death, videos of his torture and harassment at the hands of police officials were making the rounds on social media. His last recorded words were directed at the police officials torturing him: “Who taught you how to beat people?” Now, finally, after much hue and cry raised by Salahuddin’s family, his brave lawyers and the nation, an independent autopsy report has confirmed it: Salahuddin was subjected to brutal physical torture before his death.

His taunt became a haunting critique of our justice system.

Salahuddin became a victim of our criminal justice system. Justice Project Pakistan, in its remarkably comprehensive 2014 report on custodial torture by police in Faisalabad — the findings of which have been reaffirmed by a recent National Commission of Human Rights inquiry — held unequivocally that torture meted out by law enforcement agencies on convicts is institutional and systemic in Pakistan. From Salahuddin’s case to a police torture cell being unearthed in Lahore recently, their conclusion seems to be spot on.

These practices continue even as our Constitution clearly states that no one can be illegally deprived of life or liberty. Article 14(2) goes on to specifically target custodial torture by police forces as illegal. Pakistan has also signed and ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture, which according to recent international jurisprudence, makes it incumbent on signatory states to make effective laws to criminalise, prohibit and prevent custodial torture. But despite mountains of evidence of custodial torture being a normal part of our criminal investigation process, as well as all the constitutional and international obligations on our state to end such practices, the halls of parliament and chambers of our highest constitutional court remain silent as our police stations are filled with the screams of the ‘alleged guilty’.

While completely ending the menace of custodial torture will require a complete overhaul of our criminal justice system and our police services, in the interim, some simple measures are urgently required to combat this evil effectively so that stories like Salahuddin’s become the exception rather than the norm. We need only to look towards the Indian courts, which in the past few years have issued several directives to curb this menace.

Measures such as independent monitoring of police stations through CCTV cameras and police vehicles through GPS trackers; written and reasoned orders to be produced by the police at the time of arrest of an accused; mandatory communication of an arrest by the police to the family of the accused at the time of the arrest; creation of an independent internal accountability force within the police; mandatory psychological evaluations of police recruits; and awarding of financial compensation for victims and their families are the need of the hour to stop custodial torture and deaths in Pakistan.

One can only hope that our policymakers, parliamentarians and judges take up this issue now and try to combat the evil of custodial torture before yet another Salahuddin enters the custody of the police in Pakistan expecting justice, due procedure and respect of his civil rights from the very men entrusted to protect the citizens of this great nation. We owe him at least that much, so that his death may not be in vain.

The writer is a human rights lawyer working at the Law and Policy Chambers in Islamabad.


Twitter: @OmerImranMalik

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2019