A dangerous idea

Published June 26, 2022
The writer is a legal and policy specialist working with Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is a legal and policy specialist working with Justice Project Pakistan.

IN a recent wave of Pakistani drama serials depicting police investigations nestled between family discord and jilted lovers, audiences saw some uncomfortable, yet familiar tropes being played out. The ‘good cop’, sometimes even depicted as a strong female character, just like her traditional counterparts, is seen hanging people upside down, with orders to beat them until they cough up something useful for the case. Such is the enmeshment of torture as a concept in Pakistan — even the most noble heroes seem to use it to stop evil in its tracks.

The idea that torture works is unfounded and dangerous. Unfortunately, it is also a widely held belief. If one speaks to law-enforcement officers, let alone the general public, most will say torture reaps results, and therefore it is a part of protocol during investigations. The seriousness of the act also seems to go unappreciated.

At a roundtable on a proposed torture law many years ago, I recall a retired police officer rather unabashedly recounting the time an accused person died of fright before they even touched him — his team had merely put a sack over his head and were gearing up for the act. We spent some time politely debating physical torture and psychological torture. Despite the passage of many years and the congregation of countless panels, focus groups, roundtables and interested parties across political lines, there is no stand-alone, comprehensive law in Pakistan criminalising torture.

Under the right to dignity within Pakistan’s Constitution, the government is obligated to ensure that no person is subjected to torture for the purpose of extracting evidence. There also exist a myriad of provisions across various laws which can, in theory, be used to hold law enforcement accountable for perpetrating acts of torture. However, this piecemeal approach to an endemic practice has reaped few results.

The idea that torture works is unfounded.

Last year, while speaking to a client on death row who was a minor at the time of his offence, I asked for details of the police torture he had experienced just after arrest. He was beaten mercilessly and systematically. Produced in court at the time, he was brave enough to raise it with the judge, who did not order any sort of medical examination, as was his duty. Instead, he chastised the police playfully, asking: “What have you taught him?” It seems the chastising was not for beating a young boy within an inch of his life, but instead, for not doing it well enough to get a timely confession.

At any stage, if there is reason to believe that an accused person has suffered torture, there is a duty on the court to investigate this. A medical examination must be conducted, resulting in a medico-legal certificate. This seldom takes place. With no evidence to prove the torture, most accused persons are unable to seek safety or redress, and cannot show that their confession was made under duress. If a medico-legal certificate is given, little happens as a result — perpetrators of torture are not punished, and victims are often returned to the law-enforcement personnel they made complaints against.

What does this mean for our justice system? The high rate of torture in Pakistan renders the confessions being used in our courts unreliable. This means our convictions are not sound. The punishments we give to convicted prisoners are at grave risk of being unlawful. This is a travesty for the victims of an offence as well as the accused persons. With all criminal justice matters, it is not just the parties involved, but entire communities that suffer as a result of crime and punishment.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Pakistan ratified in 2010, requires that states criminalise torture using specific legislation. Between 2010 and now, we have seen many politicians speak out against torture and exp­ress interest in legislating against it. With cross-party support on this issue, and a public that deserves much better from law enforcement in Pakistan, it is a shame that Pakistan is unable to protect its citizens from this inhumane practice.

The United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture falls on June 26 ie today. The aim of this day is to both honour and support victims of torture. What could be more honourable or supportive than creating a system for prevention, accountability and remedy so that torture is no longer endemic in Pakistan?

Until Pakistan criminalises torture, citizens must continue to carry the burden of mitigation and challenge these practices in our own spheres. Lawyers should push hard to get medical examinations conducted at the right time, judges should intervene when there is sign of torture, and law enforcement should initiate reform within itself to root out the practice. Finally, and most importantly, the government must jump-start the long-overdue mission of making torture a crime.

The writer is a legal and policy specialist working with Justice Project Pakistan.
Twitter: @sfarrukhsh

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2022

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