IT has been 11 years since Pakistan ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, over five since the National Action Plan on Human Rights was developed, four since it committed to enacting legislation criminalising torture during its state review under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), almost a year since Senator Sherry Rehman’s Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill was approved by the Senate Human Rights Committee and about nine months since Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that he had asked the interior ministry to expedite his party’s anti-torture bill.
So why are we commemorating yet another International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 26) without making torture a crime?
The answer is simple. While there has been political momentum towards making torture a crime in Pakistan, efforts have stalled. Commitments have been repeatedly contradicted by frequent incidents of torture by the police, which in turn seem to be oblivious to the conversations taking place at the top. And for conversations they have heard many times before, there is little surprise that they are not listening.
The delays exact a heavy toll. People keep being tortured in custody with authorities resorting to this barbaric practice as a tool for extracting information, trampling on the protections supposed to be afforded by the criminal justice system and undermining the rule of law. In some cases, it even leads to custodial deaths.
There is no political will to end torture.
Cases are often adjudicated based on confessions that are obtained by causing grievous physical or mental suffering including danger to the life of a person (despite the Code of Criminal Procedure stating that it would be inadmissible), deepening the rot in our criminal justice system. Last year, Pakistan bolstered its election to the UN Human Rights Council by stating that its 2018 anti-torture bill had reached the National Assembly for consideration. However, according to a report by Justice Project Pakistan and OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture), a government bill has still not been tabled in parliament. Diplomatic efforts and human rights credibility do not fly in the face of false flags.
Torture is perceived as a by-product of resource-strapped, overburdened and frustrated policing. Combine that with a general overarching fear of law enforcement in ordinary people, and you see torture become a professionally sanctioned practice. It is a manifestation of the deep divides in Pakistan’s economic classes and discrimination against certain groups. It is also exactly what happens when human rights violations go unpunished.
A lack of a specific criminal offence of torture and adequate sanctions that reflect the gravity of the crime creates an environment that fosters impunity. The evidence of torture is well-documented in many forms. As bruises and broken bones. As medico-legal certificates. As recalled testimonies. As forwarded videos. When the police in Rahim Yar Khan filmed themselves mocking and beating up Salahuddin Ahmad, a young man with a mental disability, they made him look right at the camera before he died from his torture-inflicted injuries.
Just this month, fast-food workers were threatened and then taken into custody for not offering officers free burgers. They were held overnight at a police station in Lahore where, they reported to the press later, they were harassed and shoved around. The nine officers who were involved have been suspended. As senior police official Inam Ghani tweeted, “No one is allowed to take the law into their own hands” but we do not know how effective such a disciplinary measure will be to stop the same hands from wielding batons, shoes, and hot skewers to hurt detainees in the future.
If Pakistan is serious about weeding out the use of torture from its policing methods, it must begin by dismantling the impunity with which the practice is carried out. Genuine prosecution is the clearest possible sign of an official policy that torture will not be tolerated. And for that, we need legislation which captures the offence, clarifies effective complaint and investigative procedures and stipulates express penalties. A new standard of relationship between the state and the people is required, one that ensures public officials are not above the law.
The government of Pakistan knows this and yet, it has failed to move the needle. The only thing that keeps changing is the number of victims, and the number of times authorities promise to do more. There is a failure by way of inordinate delays, bureaucratic sludge, political infighting and the lack of will to push this through.
Pakistan’s next review under the UN Convention Against Torture is in 2022. It can either choose to be haunted by the ghosts of all the people who have been tortured to death, or it can make good on its promises and release itself from its own haunted past.
The writer is the South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International.
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2021