Outlawing torture

Published June 26, 2022

JUNE 26 is observed worldwide as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Considered one of the cruellest crimes against humanity, torture is particularly reprehensible as it violates the personhood of victims and robs them of human dignity. It is often used as a means of coercion and dehumanisation — to violently assert the perpetrator’s power and dominance over their victims.

The United Nations notes that torture is absolutely prohibited and unjustifiable whatever the circumstances may be. Since this prohibition forms part of customary international law, it is, therefore, binding on all countries, including Pakistan.

June 26 had been marked as a day of support for victims of torture so that countries may be reminded of their obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Pakistan is a signatory to that convention. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s own legislative efforts to put an end to torture — described as an ‘endemic’ problem by Amnesty International — have repeatedly stumbled.

Read: Little progress against torture

The Senate had, in July last year, passed the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill with support from across the aisle. The PPP’s Sherry Rehman had introduced the bill, and she had been supported by the then minister for human rights, PTI’s Shireen Mazari. Considering it had bipartisan support, it was hoped that the bill would promptly sail through the National Assembly as well before being signed into law by the president. It is unfortunate that it has now been almost a year but we have yet to see it enacted as law.

There is no question that the state needs to considerably tighten its regulation of legal and criminal procedures to put an end to torture perpetrated by individuals acting on behalf of the state. The extent of the rot in our system can be judged by the fact that physical or psychological torture is now considered almost a given in police and intelligence investigations. The disease has spread due to the state’s failure to ensure that individuals tasked with investigating crimes and collecting evidence do their jobs while remaining within the ambit of the law they are supposed to uphold.

Since torturers face little or no retribution, extracting forced ‘confessions’ is often the easiest way for them to close pending cases. At other times, the tactic is used to ‘teach a lesson’ to those marked as ‘undesirables’ by the state, such as journalists and dissidents. The anti-torture bill passed by the Senate last year sought to put an end to this culture of impunity. It clearly defines what constitutes torture and lays out strict punishments to both penalise and dissuade those who may seek to perpetrate it. If passed, it would give some protection to detainees, while also pushing police, intelligence and other security agencies to build their cases against suspected criminals through robust, lawfully conducted investigations.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2022

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