Torture in custody

February 17, 2020


THE broken bodies that surface now and then from the opaque recesses of the law-enforcement system in Pakistan are, one can be sure, only some of the most extreme cases of custodial torture. The vast majority of such instances, especially those that involve sexual violence, seldom come into the public eye. The result is numerous convictions every year based on false confessions extracted under torture, some of which send innocent people behind bars for years, if not to the death row. Last week, PPP leader Sherry Rehman presented a bill titled the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Sexual Violence (Prevention and Punishment) Act, 2019, in the Senate. The proposed legislation, as explained by Ms Rehman, seeks to define the various permutations of this crime and bring domestic law in conformity with the UN convention against torture, which Pakistan ratified in 2010.

Despite this country having become party to several such international treaties, custodial torture is yet to be criminalised in Pakistan and remains ingrained in our policing culture. A number of horrific incidents that have come to light recently are yet another reminder of the scale of the problem. Last October for instance, a private torture cell operated by some Punjab police personnel was unearthed in Gujranwala; one of several victims rescued from captivity later succumbed to his injuries. A few months before that, a mentally challenged man died as a result of the savage beating he had been subjected to by cops during his detention for alleged theft. Inflicting pain and suffering is a discredited method of interrogation; information gleaned through such means is highly unreliable. But lack of accountability mechanisms and resources means that torture is seen as a convenient alternative to undertaking substantive investigation; it is also used by law-enforcement personnel to settle personal scores. Moreover, political interference in police appointments and postings results in ‘favoured’ law-enforcement personnel brutalising citizens with impunity in the course of serving their benefactors. There are a number of steps that must be taken to eradicate the practice of custodial torture. Firstly, those who perpetrate it must be severely punished; secondly, police should be trained in modern investigative methods and equipped with the forensic tools that can help them solve crime without recourse to sadistic, yet ineffectual methods. If passed, the legislation will only be applicable to the Islamabad Capital Territory, but it may offer a template that the provinces can, and should, replicate.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020