Criminalising torture

Published October 22, 2022

THE passage of The Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill, 2022, by the Senate on Thursday is a welcome step on the way to abolishing some of the most abominable practices in Pakistan. While it is unlikely that the law will result in the swift elimination of torture and similarly abhorrent tactics — particularly at the hands of law enforcers — from society, the passage of the bill at least sets the right goals. In Pakistan, as events have proved, even sitting lawmakers can be subjected to torture by the powers that be. The rough treatment meted out recently to Senator Azam Khan Swati is a case in point. What the ordinary citizen — the one without connections and money — goes through, should he be suspected of wrongdoing by the police or intelligence agencies, can be much worse. In order to put an end to this ghastly behaviour, the bill seeks to prevent and criminalise torture, custodial death and custodial rape of persons “held in custody by public officials”. Under the law, torture by public servants will be made a cognisable, non-compoundable and non-bailable offence. Already passed by the National Assembly, the anti-torture bill should become law as soon as the president gives his assent.

While the law appears to be a progressive one, the question, as with all other types of such legislation, is: who will implement the law and monitor its enforcement? Pakistan has a history of passing excellent laws, but their lack of implementation renders them meaningless. The fact is that if we are to eliminate torture from society, all pillars of the state will need to be on the same page to pursue this goal. This means the civilian administration, the judiciary, as well as the security establishment must speak with one voice against torture, custodial death and other such deplorable practices. That is easier said than done. From eliminating the colonial throwback known as the thana culture, where suspects are beaten and tortured in order to ‘confess’ to their supposed crimes, to ending enforced disappearances and midnight knocks, a national consensus is needed to do away with extrajudicial methods. The fact is that torture must be replaced with modern, civilised methods of investigation, and those public servants — including personnel from the police, agencies or other law-enforcement bodies — that torture and illegally detain citizens must be held accountable before the law. The task is difficult, but one that must be undertaken.

Published in Dawn, October 22th, 2022

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