International day against torture: 'I worry what the police will do to my deaf father'

Frequent instances of police torture against people with disabilities raise concerns about sensitivity training.
Published 26 Jun, 2021 10:29am

Have you ever honked at a person on the road and wondered why they wouldn’t budge to give you way? Or screamed 'behra hai kya?' (Are you deaf?) to someone oblivious to your vehicle’s aural assault directed at them.

Probably.

What is less likely, but still probable, is you commuting in a car with your parents, a policeman stopping you, and then demanding why your father isn’t speaking. ‘Tell him to give us an answer!’

A few years ago, Olas Khan from Mardan was shot dead for disobeying the verbal orders of policemen at a check post who took his silence as a sign of guilt. They thought he was a suicide bomber when he was actually a hearing impaired cloth seller. His only crime was not having the ability to speak. His story made my heart sink.

My own father has been deaf and mute since birth. A strange fear engulfs us whenever he leaves the house. Several times a day, a wave of worry will wash over us. If he doesn’t come back at the time he said he would, we try not to imagine the worst. Sometimes, we call him, and he’ll either reject the call or hand the phone to a person nearby. Sometimes he’ll text us. When he has access to the Internet, we video call him. But the dread that my father, like Olas Khan, would not be given the chance to explain his impairment stalks us constantly.

What is it about the police that troubles us so much? Why are we so scared of the very people supposed to protect us? It is the culture of impunity with which the police uses force against its own people. People who may be physically or mentally disabled. Remember Salahuddin who was caught on surveillance camera cheekily sticking his tongue out after stealing money from an ATM? He was tortured so brutally by the police, he died in custody. One of the last words to come out of his mouth were 'tussi loka nu maarna kitho sikhya ay?' (where did you learn to beat people like this?).

My father’s best friend is a child who has Down's syndrome. He lives across the street from us. Despite their age difference, the two have bonded over their perceived differences. What if one day the police decide to thrash him too because they can’t understand him. Or if they take offence to some aspect of his behaviour that he himself cannot control?

But these policemen and policewomen are as human as us. They remain as ignorant of mental and physical disabilities as we are. Which is why it’s so important to train them so they can treat all members of society with consideration and respect.

I recently joined a non-profit organisation called Justice Project Pakistan that fights for prisoners’ rights. And only last week, JPP organised trainings for prison officials in Sindh on the mental health of inmates. Sindh has been the first province to initiate trainings following a Supreme Court order in February this year. Prohibiting executions of severely mentally ill prisoners, the top court has also set guidelines for identifying and treating prisoners with psychosocial disabilities. The court has also ordered the formation of medical boards in every province.

Speaking of reforms to bring an end to police brutality, it is perturbing that Pakistan does not yet have a law expressly criminalising torture. Violence in the custody of police (legal and illegal) is a known fact. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 116 people are reported to have died in police custody in the last five years. Many more cases are never reported. And the actual figure may be much higher.

Today, June 26, is observed as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. And today, I only wish for one thing: that what happened with Olas Khan and Salahuddin does not happen to anyone else. I hope that torture can be outlawed and the perpetrators punished every time so that law enforcement personnel do not think they can get away with murder.