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Mission impossible

September 29, 2012

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ASK any Pakistani which government department he fears and distrusts most, and almost invariably, the answer you’ll get is the police.

These custodians of law and order are charged with everything from corruption to cruelty to gross incompetence. As we all know, these accusations are well-founded.

And yet, reviled as it is, our police force is being asked to do the impossible. Denied adequate resources, with virtually no political or public support, and an outdated legal and administrative structure, the police are tasked with tackling vicious terrorist and criminal gangs.

These criminals are not only far better armed and more highly motivated than the police, they are also secure in the knowledge that even if they are arrested, the chances of getting released on bail — or winning an outright acquittal — are very high.

Currently, around 1.4 million cases are pending in courts across the country, including the Supreme Court’s backlog of 20,000. And as we know all too well, the apex court is too busy with urgent political matters to pay much attention to its primary responsibility. After all, hearing routine cases does not attract much media attention.

According to a recent report on police reforms released by the Asia Society, 282 out of 447 terrorism cases, or 63 per cent, tried by anti-terrorism courts in Punjab in 2011 resulted in acquittals.

One reason for this shockingly high rate of acquittals is that in many cases, the initial arrests were made by the ISI or Military Intelligence whose officers carried out the preliminary interrogations.

Almost invariably, confessions thus extracted were later repudiated when the accused were handed over to the police for prosecution. The courts usually deemed the testimony obtained by intelligence agencies to be inadmissible.

Another factor behind this high release rate is the fear witnesses feel in testifying against hardened killers; in many cases, this apprehension is shared by the judges.

The Asia Society report has recommended that the Anti-Terrorism Courts Act of 1997 be amended to allow testimony obtained by intelligence operatives or the army.

Currently, this law is often abused to try cases that have nothing to do with terrorism. After 15 years of escalating acts of terrorism since the 1997 law was enacted, it is time to bring it into line with reality.

Several of the report’s recommendations relate to the inadequate resources at the disposal of our police. If you have the misfortune to visit your local police station, you will see a dilapidated building with battered furniture and yellowing documents.

Often, the officer in charge has to arrange his own supply of stationery. The accommodation provided to the lower ranks is closer to a slum than to government housing.

Working under these conditions, is it a surprise that the police are demoralised? And given their salaries and poor promotion prospects, should we really be shocked over corruption in the service?

Badly trained and led, the only investigative method the police are taught is to torture suspects. There are no forensic labs worth the name, and even fingerprinting, a century-old technology, has yet to be made part of our routine investigation techniques.

Despite this abysmal picture, there is no reason why our police cannot improve. The Motorway Police, for instance, are smartly dressed, polite and, to my knowledge at least, incorruptible.

A few years ago, I was driving from Islamabad to Lahore with an old friend who, under Musharraf, was more powerful than any minister.

I was glad to note that his driver was sticking to the speed limit. When I asked why, my friend replied that the Motorway Police stopped anybody who was speeding, regardless of government number plates.

This fine body of cops is better paid than their colleagues, and have cultivated an esprit de corps that motivates them. So clearly, given the right incentives and leadership, it is possible to mould an efficient, relatively honest police force. The Asia Society’s recommendations could serve as an excellent starting point.

One thing that is often highlighted by the media, and yet remains unchanged, is the wasteful diversion of the police to security duties.

Politicians and senior officials have round-the-clock police guards at their gates. When they travel by car, they are accompanied by a security detail.

If these people are indeed at risk, the government should hire private security guards to protect them, thereby releasing thousands of cops for normal duties. Thus far, the emphasis is on protecting the government of the day and its minions rather than ordinary citizens.

Recently, when two policewomen were killed in Manchester, David Cameron travelled there to condole and pay tribute to the slain constables. The British media carried their pictures and obituaries prominently. In Pakistan, cops are killed almost every day and buried unsung and unmourned, except by their immediate families.

Watching the recent anti-blasphemy riots on TV, I was struck by the courage shown by the police in confronting the violent crowds. Had it not been for them, the rioters would have wreaked even greater havoc. Surely the government could have acknowledged the bravery of the police in some way?

All too often, government MPs regard the police as their private militia to use against opponents. Rural politicians, in particular, manoeuvre to get their personal favourites posted in their constituencies. These officials are too beholden to their patrons to act without fear or favour.

Until this kind of patronage and political interference is eliminated, we will never have the kind of police force we need. But this is easier said than done: when a political party is out of power, it screams about being victimised; but as soon as it takes office, it uses exactly the same methods.

Then there’s the phenomenon of political parties supporting criminal gangs in Karachi. Despite the escalating violence, the police are largely helpless because the rival groups enjoy the backing of coalition partners in the Sindh government. However, as the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) has shown us in Karachi, with cooperation between citizens, the government and the business community, public support can help the police become more effective and responsive.

Ultimately, we get the police we deserve. Criticising the cops is the easy part. The hard bit is to galvanise public opinion and force the government to carry out reforms.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com