Criminalising torture

Published July 14, 2021

ONE can hope that individuals in custody will no longer emerge from detention with their bodies and spirits broken, often having confessed to crimes they did not commit simply to make the pain stop. That is, of course, if they emerge alive at all. For, after years of delay, Pakistan has finally hewed towards a more civilised approach in law enforcement.

On Monday, the Senate passed The Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill 2021, which will now go to the Lower House for assent and then be signed into law by the president. The remaining process must be completed as soon as possible; the government has dragged its feet on the matter for far too long. It has been 11 years since Pakistan ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and four years since it committed to enacting legislation criminalising torture during its state review under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Sherry Rehman introduced the bill in the Upper House in February 2020, and it has been a year since the Senate human rights committee approved it.

Read: Pakistan has embarrassingly little to show for its commitment to eradicate torture

The bill lays out a procedure for filing complaints of torture, custodial sexual violence and custodial death so that an investigation can be launched, which must be completed within 15 days after being ordered by a sessions court. Any public servant involved in torture can be sentenced for up to 10 years in prison and fined up to Rs2m. If a public servant, whose duty it is to prevent torture, either intentionally or negligently fails to prevent it, he/she will face up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs1m. Anyone found guilty of committing, abetting or conspiring in an act of custodial death or custodial sexual violence, will be liable to imprisonment for life and with a fine of up to Rs3m. The bill affords few loopholes to anyone attempting to evade responsibility for committing these non-compoundable and non-bailable crimes.

Torture is symptomatic of a brutalised society where class divisions are pronounced and discrimination against certain groups is tolerated. An under-resourced police in such an environment — where some lives are expendable — finds it simpler to ‘show results’ through forced confessions than to get to the root of the crime. Ending the impunity with which torture is routinely practiced will be a major step towards bringing in more effective ways of investigating crime.

Law-enforcement officials must be imparted training in forensic evidence gathering techniques and in alternative methods of interrogation. This legislative change requires nothing less than a cognitive shift in how policing is viewed. Barbaric practices undermine the rule of the law, rather than strengthening it. Equally important, when the legislation against torture and custodial death is on the statute books, it must be implemented strictly without regard to rank or connections.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2021

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