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With recent custodial deaths in Punjab, what is being done to counter police brutality?

Torture to extract confessions in police custody has become a major cause of custodial deaths in Punjab.
Updated Oct 11, 2019 01:24pm

Standing outside a court in Lahore, Sunny Masih struggles to hold back tears as he recalls the abuse and death of his brother in police custody. Amir Masih was tortured in a private lock-up in the provincial metropolis over an alleged street crime, resulting in his death.

“They've killed my brother and I want justice,” says Sunny.

Amir Masih died after being detained in a torture cell in Lahore. — *File photo*
Amir Masih died after being detained in a torture cell in Lahore. — File photo

He remembers how his brother was dragged to a private torture cell for interrogation. Masih, who continued to visit the police station every day in search of an answer to his brother’s arrest, never got a response from the police; nor was his brother ever presented in court. He felt shunned.

Grieving his brother's sudden demise, Sunny exclaims, "You should view the footage of how policemen transported my injured brother to the hospital on a motorcycle. They repeatedly slapped and kicked my already brutally injured brother before dragging him to the emergency ward.”

He continues, “I can never forget those scenes.”

Sunny, an ordinary citizen of the country, believed that law enforcement agencies provided people with justice. However, the weight of his reality has forced him to abandon that notion.

I have seen that the state only protects the country's powerful classes and we, the poor, have no rights and are unable to fight this powerful institution, says Sunny Masih, brother of Amir Masih

“The state and its apparatus is responsible for killing my brother, so who can I seek justice from now," he asks.

Sunny Masih's FIR against his brother's torture and death. — *Photo by author*
Sunny Masih's FIR against his brother's torture and death. — Photo by author

Amir, who worked as a gardener in Lahore’s P.F. Colony, was summoned to the North Cantonment police station, before being transported to an unknown location. A post-mortem report reveals that Amir was later subjected to torture — proven by the marks on his hands, feet, arms and back; his ribs were also broken. His brother Sunny says that based on his interactions with investigators, it appeared that his brother had been tortured to extract a confession.

Editorial: Another ‘illegally detained’ man dies in custody

The incident has left Sunny and the Masih family devastated.

While six police officers, including a sub-inspector, were nominated in a criminal case for allegedly torturing Amir, Sunny tells Dawn.com: “I have lost all hope for justice because I have seen how investigating officers deal with the police.”

“I have seen that the state only protects the country's powerful classes and we, the poor, have no rights and are unable to fight this powerful institution."

A recurring pattern

In a recent case, Salahuddin Ayubi of Gujranwala's Kamonkay district, whose video of robbing an ATM went viral, also died in police custody in Rahim Yar Khan.

Salahuddin was arrested in Rahim Yar Khan when he was caught stealing from an ATM machine. He was reported dead the very next day. — *YouTube screengrab/File*
Salahuddin was arrested in Rahim Yar Khan when he was caught stealing from an ATM machine. He was reported dead the very next day. — YouTube screengrab/File

The postmortem forensic report prepared by the Punjab Forensic Science Agency has confirmed that Salahuddin was subjected to severe torture that led to his death. Evidence of this torture was found in the form of blood clots on the injured parts of Salahuddin's body, with marks of violence on the upper side of his right arm and on the left side of his stomach.

Meanwhile, another case of torture was recently reported by a woman in police custody in the town of Luddon in Punjab's Vehari district, that led to the arrests of five policemen, including a deputy superintendent of police (DSP). Thirteen police officials were also suspended from service for being involved in the case.

Policemen beat a man on a road in Islamabad. — *File photo*
Policemen beat a man on a road in Islamabad. — File photo

Aside from that, the police recently subjected an elderly woman to ill-treatment at the entry point of the Central Police Office (CPO) in Lahore. The assistant sub-inspector (ASI) who misbehaved with Kundan Mai and threatened her with consequences was arrested after a video footage of the incident went viral online showing the ASI Asif Ali abusing the 85-year-old woman.

Reports prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reveal that 34 people were killed in police custody and 27 in police encounters during the period of January 1, 2018, to September 18, 2019. Meanwhile, 37 have been injured as a result of custodial torture and 82 others have faced physical excesses in police custody in Pakistan.

Moreover, at least seven cases of custodial deaths have been reported in Punjab alone during the last eight months.

Looking into the main cause of custodial deaths, it appears that suspects are put through torture while detained in order to extract confessions from them. This is completely illegal as Article 14 (2) of the Constitution of Pakistan states that no person shall be subjected to torture for extracting evidence.

Who is responsible?

HRCP Secretary-General Harris Khalique says that although the existing laws on custodial deaths are far from perfect, even then, no one appears to be interested in implementing them.

Pakistan and its state institutions need a fundamental shift from being colonial to democratic, where people are considered citizens and not subjects, says HRCP Secretary General Harris Khalique

He says, “Police in our context is a colonial institution of a state which is captured by the elite — whether at the local or at the national level. And these state institutions are structured to oppress, not serve, the public.”

Khalique believes that there are laws on police custody in every area, but inherent structural interests do not permit the rule of law.

According to him, “Pakistan and its state institutions need a fundamental shift from being colonial to democratic, where people are considered citizens and not subjects.”

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

"It is the responsibility of the Parliament and provincial assemblies to not only legislate, but to continuously oversee and monitor if laws are upheld by state institutions," says Khalique.

A judicial inquiry was ordered in the wake of the recent spate of criticism on the Rahim Yar Khan police. — *Dawn/File photo*
A judicial inquiry was ordered in the wake of the recent spate of criticism on the Rahim Yar Khan police. — Dawn/File photo

Speaking to Dawn.com regarding the recent incidents of torture, Punjab Police spokesman Nayab Haider says policemen involved in abusing the law will not find a place in the department. Strict departmental action will be taken against officials who abuse their power or are responsible for the death of any suspect under their custody, he adds.

In any district where a custodial death occurs, the District Police Officer (DPO) will be transferred and a murder case will be registered against officers involved, says Haider.

Optimistic about improving conditions, he says officials involved in the killing of suspects in custody are immediately arrested and a number of them were now facing trial under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which deals with the crime of premeditated murder.

Haider mentions a recent case where an Additional Sub Inspector (ASI) and two constables allegedly involved in the torture of a suspect were dismissed from service and were facing trial under criminal charges.

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

“These officials will not be given any concession for being police officers. Not only will they have to face criminal cases, they will also be terminated from service.”

Referring to the death of Salahuddin, Haider says the DPO of Rahim Yar Khan was immediately removed and strict legal action was taken against police station staff.

He further tells Dawn.com that inquiry of the custodial killing of Salahuddin was being carried out by a very senior police officer so that strict departmental and legal action can be taken.

Introducing reforms

Ijaz Alam Augustine, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Affairs, says the government has been trying to introduce reforms within the police in order to combat the issue of police brutality and the department's overall image problem.

The recent incidents of police brutality and custodial deaths have brought about embarrassment for police high-ups when a man died in Rahim Yar Khan and another in Lahore. — *Photo courtesy Punjab police Facebook/File*
The recent incidents of police brutality and custodial deaths have brought about embarrassment for police high-ups when a man died in Rahim Yar Khan and another in Lahore. — Photo courtesy Punjab police Facebook/File

He says the government is all for providing utmost legal help to the victims of police torture in order to help the complainants manage their affairs in the wake of such trauma.

We are also planning to introduce reforms in the judicial system to speed these cases up, with special attention to cases of extrajudicial killings, says Augustine.

He adds that although high-ups in the police have been resisting the introductions of reforms in their department, the government was committed to bring these in.

Augustine also says that the government was providing assistance to the complainant in the Amir Masih case and that it would ensure that those responsible do not get away scot-free.

Augustine points out that while there were suggestions to register the case of Amir Masih's death on behalf of the state but his brother ultimately became the complainant.

Changing the culture

Last month, a torture cell operated allegedly by Lahore's Gujjarpura station house officer (SHO) along with three constables to keep suspects in custody on the pretext of interrogation was unearthed.

According to the Punjab Police spokesman Haider, the Gujjarpura SHO and other officers involved in establishing the private lockup were suspended from service, and a murder case was registered against the policemen of North Cantonment, who were allegedly involved in torturing a robbery suspect to death.

Haider says that in all such cases of torture of suspects in police custody, FIRs will be registered against the SHO of the area, the circle officer and the DPO.

“The SHO will be blacklisted if it is proven that torture was committed by staff of the police station in his jurisdiction and he/she will not be deputed in any police station in the future,” he adds.

More on this: Amid custodial torture cases, Punjab police bans use of mobile phones while on duty

The problem here ultimately boils down to thana culture of which inefficiency, rudeness by the police, torture, corruption, and illegal detention, are some of the highlights, and without reforming this culture in a holistic manner, reactive measures can only go so far.

Haider says reform is on the mind of Punjab Police and that encompasses environment as well as methodology.

Punjab Police is replacing conventional modes of investigation with scientific-based methodology, Haider tells Dawn.com, adding that “a school of investigation has been established at Lahore's Police Training College Chung to train officers to collect evidence, including digital evidence, from the crime scene, develop an evidence archive", as well as develop a strong understanding of forensics, computing and geo-fencing.

Haider says all investigation officers will be sent to the school of investigation for training, and that modules of law and ethics will also be incorporated into the syllabus that they are taught.

Haider says aside from the other measures that have been taken to ameliorate the public's grievances against the police, this school will focus on completely changing the thana culture, and reorient the institution towards efficient community policing.