When Muhammad Iqbal was picked up in 1998 by the police on a charge of murder, from near his home in Mandi Bahauddin, he was barely 17 years old. Iqbal claims he was not even in the village at the time the said murder was committed and that he had been framed by someone.
“Someone we know had some personal enmity with my father and so he made me a scapegoat,” Iqbal says, now approaching the age of 40. “But honest to God, I wasn’t even there when it happened. In any case, the police picked me up, and took me to the police station.”
Whatever happened after that, Iqbal usually skips over, when alluding to his arrest. Ultimately, he was handed a death sentence by an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) for “murdering a man and injuring three others”, but not before suffering severe third-degree torture by the local police.
The police torture Iqbal suffered forced him to confess to a crime he vows he never committed. He spent the next 22 years of his life in jail. Despite being a minor, he was even dealt a death sentence which he managed to dramatically escape at the last minute, after being given a ‘black warrant’ — the final order for execution.
Despite hundreds of cases every year, Pakistan seems to downplay the prevalence of torture, inflicted on its hapless citizens by those sworn to uphold the law. There are a number of reasons why this cruel and devastating practice is widespread and considered part and parcel of law enforcement. But perhaps the biggest reason is Pakistan’s failure to criminalise it
However, his story is not about his narrow escape from the jaws of death. His is a story that exemplifies the unspeakable custodial torture suffered at the hands of police and investigation agencies by those facing physical remand or detention.
“Instead of taking me to the police station, where the accused is meant to be taken,” Iqbal tells Eos, “the police took me to a cut-off place located at a distance from the main station.
“I was blindfolded but it seemed like their private cell was meant for such acts. Once they took me inside, they tied me to a metal bed and began their business.”
Iqbal is a little embarrassed when speaking about what he endured. He does not go into the details of the torture methods used.
“What can I say? They made me suffer in every way possible,” he tells Eos. “They kept forcing me to own up to the crime. The torture was so bad that I, just a minor, was at their mercy and ended up taking the blame for the crime. They had been threatening me that, if I did not give a confessional statement, they would nominate my father in the FIR as well.”
“They made me suffer in every way possible,” Iqbal says. “They kept forcing me to own up to the crime. The torture was so bad that I, just a minor, was at their mercy and ended up taking the blame for the crime. They had been threatening me that, if I did not give a confessional statement, they would nominate my father in the FIR as well.”
It took 22 years for Iqbal to be declared wrongfully accused and for his case to fall apart in court. His youth was over. He had lost his parents. But at least he was still alive and finally free from prison.
Not every innocent makes it out, though.
In September 2019, a mentally unstable man, Salahuddin Ayubi, a resident of Gujranwala, was picked up by the Punjab police on charges of an ATM theft in Faisalabad. The man was subjected to intense and horrific police torture, with a video that surfaced on social media later showing Punjab police officials beating him and humiliating him in the worst possible ways.
In the video, two police officers could be seen beating Ayubi and verbally abusing him to scare him, while the accused appeared to be in extreme pain and was ostensibly confused. The police officials also forced him to stick his tongue out for ‘fun’, as Ayubi had done in the ATM unit while facing the CCTV camera there. This was a display of utter apathy for a person with a mental or physical condition, and rampant abuse of power by the police.
Salahuddin was not only mentally challenged, he was also mute and, according to his father, had been reportedly suffering from a health condition which worsened while he was in custody. When his health began to deteriorate in police custody, only then was he taken to a hospital. But Ayubi could not survive.
Later, a forensic report confirmed that Ayubi had been badly beaten, especially on his right arm and on the left side of his stomach, which had caused severe bruising. There was coagulated blood on different parts of his body where he was tortured, said the report, while adding that the deceased was often out of breath due to a lung disease.
An uproar on social media about this incident lasted for a short time before it evaporated from the collective memory of the public.
Dr Naseem Baloch recounts the horrific details of his first abduction, “When I asked for water, I would be given four strikes of the chhittar [leather whipping strap] before being given a bottle of water held by one of the torturers. The personnel at night would whip me with the leather strap the moment they felt I had fallen asleep.”
For the torture victim, it is difficult to decide which is worse: the torture or the impunity his or her perpetrators enjoy. It is rare to see a police officer get more than a slap on the wrist even in cases of custodial deaths. Not many are tried in court, and even fewer convicted.
Many hold society responsible for enabling a violent mindset that these officers mirror. There is certainly a lack of accountability for these crimes and there are no mechanisms in place that can ensure accountability, either.
In March 2015, the Senate of Pakistan passed the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill 2014. This bill was subsequently sent to the National Assembly, which referred it to the relevant committee. The bill lapsed due to a failure to pass it within the stipulated 90-day period. It was then referred to a joint sitting of the parliament in January 2017.
The National Action Plan (NAP) for Human Rights, introduced by the federal Ministry for Human Rights in February 2016, set a six-month deadline to pass the Torture, Custodial Death, and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill. However, to date, the bill has not been taken up by parliament.
In 2017, a similar draft bill was approved by the sub-committee of the National Assembly’s Committee on the Interior. Again, this too has not been passed by parliament.
In 2010, Pakistan also ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT). Besides not adhering to its international law obligations, this failure to enact anti-torture legislation is also in violation of Pakistan’s own promises made under the National Action Plan (NAP) that was passed eight years ago.
In 2020, life in the idyllic Karora village in district Shangla of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was troubled after a 52-year-old local man died in police custody. Sayid Muhammad Shah, the brother of the deceased, revealed to local media that all he was told by the police was that his brother had “died in the lock-up.” He was offered no other explanation.
“When I reached the police station,” Shah had said when talking to a local journalist, “I found my brother’s body inside the lock-up, with a piece of cloth around his neck and handcuffs on his wrists. The police tried to show that he had hanged himself. But it was clumsily done and was clearly a cover-up.”
Sayid Muhammad registered an FIR against Naseeb Shah, the additional Station House Officer (SHO) who had arrested the victim from Karora bazaar.
To make matters worse, the police had uploaded, on their Facebook page, a photograph of the victim, holding up a placard with charges of drug possession written on it, to further humiliate him.
In 2014, a ground-breaking study was conducted by JPP and Yale University, where a sample of 1,867 medico-legal certificates (MLCs) from District Faisalabad, filed between 2006 and 2012, were thoroughly investigated. Following this, the National Commission for Human Rights Pakistan (NCHR) initiated an inquiry into the confirmed cases of torture...
IN THE TORTURE CELL
Although the police force has become synonymous with torture, intelligence and investigation agencies have also been regularly accused of meting out torture to people they pick up for ‘interrogation’ or information.
The chairman of the Baloch National Movement (BNM) Dr Naseem Baloch was abducted twice by an intelligence agency from Karachi — once in 2005 and then in 2010. Apparently targeted for his political activism, Dr Naseem suffered such intense torture by his kidnappers that its severity cannot be measured by words.
From cigarette burns on his body to electric shocks to kicking him in his kidneys which affected his urinary system, to sleep deprivation, humiliation, starving and hanging by the arms — the latter seemingly a favourite go-to method of custodial torture — it is a miracle Dr Baloch survived at all.
“The doorbell rang at 3am while I was in a deep sleep,” Dr Naseem recounts the horrific details of his first abduction for Eos. “Around 20 uniformed personnel accompanied by plain-clothed men stormed my flat the moment I opened the door. After being hit a couple of times with a gun butt on my head and neck, I was left half unconscious. But from the sounds from the next room I could tell that my other colleagues were being blindfolded and tied up. I remember being barefoot, as I was escorted to one of the security jeeps.”
They didn’t allow him to sleep for the first three days.
“I was hung by my wrists, arms stretched upwards. It was a huge hall with black and white tiles. A high beam searchlight would hover in my face. I was made to hang like this in such a way that my toes barely touched the ground.” At the same time, his head was covered with a plastic bag, making it difficult to breathe and he was burnt with cigarettes all over his body.
“I had only 40 seconds to relieve myself when they allowed me to, and when I asked for water, I would be given four strikes of the chhittar [leather whipping strap] before being given a bottle of water held by one of the torturers. The personnel at night would whip me with the leather strap the moment they felt I had fallen asleep.”
Each whipping would leave a thick bloody mark on his body.
“They did other things too — electrocuted me on my thighs, for example — all of it depended on what mood they were in to kill time.”
His ‘interrogation’ did not begin before the fourth day. An officer sat opposite him questioning, while he sat on a chair blindfolded, while another stood behind him, ready to whip him hard when the need arose. It continued like this for weeks. After 45 days, he was shifted to Quetta, where the whole cycle continued. Later, somehow, he says, he was freed along with some others on May 25, 2005.
“The second time I was picked up was from Quetta in 2010, when I was heading home from my hospital shift. I was stopped by the Frontier Corps (FC) personnel, who were accompanied by some plainclothes intelligence agents. Again, I was blindfolded and tied and put in the back of a vehicle.”
Once again, the whole procedure began on repeat, but this time by midnight, shortly after the whipping had stopped, a bearded man entered the dark room. Dr Naseem’s blindfold was removed, and the man began showing him some pictures on a cell phone for him to identify.
“This is when I saw a blue electric shock machine. The man pointed a remote at the machine and warned me that the power could go up to 450 watts should I choose not to cooperate.”
Needless to say, Dr Naseem was tortured by the machine.
“I was left unconscious after the electric shocks and do not remember what happened afterwards,” he says. “In the morning, when I asked permission for a toilet break, I discovered blood on my clothes, mainly the lower part of the body and the testicles,” he says, adding that there was blood in his urine too.
“The toilet break was for two minutes a day and was the only place where I could see things. This continued for a week. They would often electrocute my head, my genitals and other sensitive parts of my body.”
There was also waterboarding, dipping his face in oil, forcibly making him stand on ice for long periods of time, pulling off nails, and even hammering iron nails on the ankles and bones of legs.
The psychological impact of these two abductions still remains with Dr Naseem. He gets nightmares and sometimes he himself cannot help but become aggressive towards those nearest to him, realising it was an overreaction often too late.
He has also developed a panic disorder, which can be triggered at any time. After his release, the sound of keys would send fear through him, because it would remind him of an officer unlocking the cell door to take one of the prisoners away for a torture session.
Even today, he visits a psychiatrist to heal himself. The scars of his body may have diminished, but the scars on his mind remain.
Dr Naseem has left the country and lives in self-exile.
THE UNSEEN NUMBERS
The Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) is one of the main organisations to have highlighted custodial torture in the country through various campaigns. Their project ‘Torture Watch’ conducts anti-torture advocacy, spreads awareness regarding this practice and pushes for police reform to eradicate torture.
The organisation has also released some detailed research, including in the report ‘Policing as Torture’ and on the abuse of women and juveniles by the Faisalabad police. It has also submitted a report to the UN Special Rapporteur against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment, and provides pro bono legal aid to prisoners and torture victims.
In 2014, a ground-breaking study was conducted by JPP and Yale University, where a sample of 1,867 medico-legal certificates (MLCs) from District Faisalabad, filed between 2006 and 2012, were thoroughly investigated. Following this, the National Commission for Human Rights Pakistan (NCHR) initiated an inquiry into the confirmed cases of torture, acting on a complaint filed by JPP. NCHR recorded testimonies of witnesses and survivors, and conducted a hearing with police officers named in the complaints. It also surveyed 350 random MLCs.
The MLCs were prepared by the Faisalabad District Standing Medical Board (DSMB), which was set up by the government to conduct medical examinations in response to allegations of torture. The DSMB includes four government-appointed physicians.
Over 61 percent of the women in the sample had been sexually assaulted, 81 percent had been subjected to cultural humiliation and 61 percent had been forced to witness torture of others, often their family members. This shows the systematic prevalence of police torture and adds fuel to the assumption that it is also accepted by authorities as part of the process of criminal investigation.
In January 2021, Dawn reported 10 encounters, 10 incidents of deaths in encounters or in custody and 11 incidents of physical torture or violent intimidation by the police across Pakistan.
News reports taken only from Dawn during 2020, where incidents of police violence had occurred that had resulted in the deaths of individuals came to around 109 in number; 89 news reports were of police encounters. There were 80 other articles on torture, intimidation and other abuses of authority. This was published in an investigative report by Voicepk.net, an initiative of the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell.
Meanwhile, for the same year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) monitored a total of five national newspapers, both English and Urdu, and tabulated 146 reports on police encounters that resulted in the deaths of 225 individuals, and 19 news reports on custodial deaths which claimed 23 victims. However, these figures do not include the number of inmates (convicted or under trial) who had died in prisons.
In 2020, approximately 34,000 law-enforcement personnel were punished for offences according to the police department’s accountability mechanisms, amounting to some 17 percent of the personnel enrolled in the Punjab Police force. Punishments included dismissal from service, demotions, censures and putting a hold on promotions.
LACK OF FRAMEWORK
Why torture is widely accepted and perpetrators given impunity is because of multiple reasons. They include a socio-cultural acceptance, the lack of independent oversight and investigation mechanisms, widespread powers of arrest and detention, procedural loopholes and ineffective safeguards. However, perhaps the biggest reason this practice continues is Pakistan’s failure to criminalise torture.
The existing framework has inherent flaws. Despite this, Muhammad Shoaib from JPP says that there are multiple ways at present in which a complaint against torture may be filed.
“When it comes to the legal process, a constitutional petition can be filed at the high court,” he says. “Besides this, Sections 155 and 157 from the Police Order deal with police accountability and with arrest or detention without reason. The latter can entail a five-year imprisonment period for offenders. There is also Section 166 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which is not used much — covering disobedience of the law by a public servant, with an intent to harm. The NCHR is a platform where a complaint can also be made. However, all such forums mete out very little punishment for the perpetrator.”
Unfortunately, apart from this, there is no mention of torture under the PPC and the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 (CrPC) — Pakistan’s two primary criminal codes. Under the PPC, there are penalties for certain acts of torture under related offences, such as “causing hurt to extort confession or to compel restoration of property”, “wrongful confinement to extort confession or compel restoration of property” or provisions governing “criminal force and assault.”
The offences described under these sections, however, do not highlight all the components of torture that have been outlined in detail under Article 1 of UNCAT, especially when it comes to custodial torture.
The term “hurt” has been used, rather than “torture” under section 337-K of the penal code and this is legally ambiguous, especially since there is no specification of whether it refers to physical or mental torture. There is also no mention of the after-effects of torture, such as a victim forced to commit suicide.
In Article 156(d) of the Police Order 2002, there are penalties against police officers who inflict “violence or torture” upon any person in their custody, but this is only limited to police officers and not other public officials. Plus, it contains no definition of torture. It does not recognise torture as an offence distinct and more severe than the mere infliction of violence by police officers.
THE UNPASSED BILLS
Instead, the 2017 Torture Bill gives a comprehensive plan to report incidents and, most importantly, defines torture, including its indirect effects.
The bill also proposes a method for reporting torture. First, the complainant must lodge a complaint before the sessions court, which would then direct the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to conduct an investigation within a set period. Both the court and the NCHR have the power to monitor this investigation.
If a magistrate feels there may have been torture, he can order an MLC and, if the results point towards torture, the sessions court will be notified and will take cognisance. This framework effectively removes the possibility of police making arrests without warrant and initiating the investigation into complaints of torture on their own — there is now a layer of scrutiny, oversight and regulation from the court, to ensure that complaints of torture are actually investigated.
The bill also provides for strict punishments, complying with UNCAT directives. It stipulates express penalties for torture, ranging from imprisonment for a term of three to 10 years, as well as a fine which may extend to two million rupees. Importantly, it also provides penalties for those public servants who have a duty to prevent the commission of torture and “intentionally or negligently” fail to do so. It also provides penalties for those public servants who incite or instigate the torture of any person.
But the problem is not in the wording of the bill. Rather, it lies in the fact that the bill is not being passed. In fact, since 2010 when UNCAT was signed and ratified by Pakistan, any attempts to have an anti-torture bill passed have been unsuccessful.
In 2015, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator Farhatullah Babar managed to have a bill passed in the Senate. But because PPP did not have a majority in the National Assembly, the bill did not pass there.
“When, in 90 days, a bill is not passed by the other house, you may call a joint sitting of the parliament,” explains the former senator and human rights activist. “But it did not even go to this session, despite the fact that the Senate had passed a resolution for it.”
In July 2021, a new Anti-Torture Bill was passed this time by Sherry Rehman, another PPP lawmaker. It was again transmitted to the NA, but there it remains to this day.
“To me it seems as if the parliament is being ‘remote controlled’ by a third party,” says Babar. “It is being blocked at different stages, despite the number of attempts to have a bill passed.”
Babar deeply criticises the state’s response towards torture.
“Whenever there is an incident of torture, a common response from the government is that ‘action is being taken, and an inquiry has been ordered.’ But what happens next, we never know,” he says. “We continue to live in a state of denial. We do not even bother to acknowledge that there is torture meted out by the LEAs [law enforcement agencies]. In fact, in our Universal Periodic Review [UPR] report, the government audaciously declares that the country’s constitution and Islam both have no tolerance for torture, therefore there is no torture in the country.”
However, he says that retired police officers have themselves confessed that they prefer to interrogate suspects in private detention cells.
“Pakistan’s own laws, such as the ‘Action in Aid of Civil Power’ law, gives the freedom to officers to practise torture,” says Babar. “This law allowed the constitution of internment centres in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and then later they were extended to the whole province. What are these internment centres but the Guantanamo Bay prisons of Pakistan?” he exclaims. “Once someone goes inside, the walls close in on him and no one has any idea about what is happening inside.”
For Babar, the way forward is that all of civil society must stand together and give this matter importance and, at the government level, the UNCAT law must be made and implemented.
While Babar may be right, the many survivors of torture in Pakistan, such as Iqbal and Dr Naseem, have little belief that the law will ever even be passed, let alone be implemented.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 7th, 2022