Custodial Torture; Parliament Can Stop This At Any Time
Amid the rowdy hustle bustle of The Karachi Literature Festival, what kept my interest buoyed was an art installation by the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) called “You can stop this at any time”. Three minutes without any preamble, inside a pitch-dark box, your humanity materialises right in front of your eyes. The piece was un-apologetically louche, and it told the true story of a prisoner’s plight in jail, which ended in him being executed in 2015, after several years of suffering.
Pakistan is one of those countries where there is a dire need for criminal justice reforms, and civil society groups like JPP are doing an excellent job in advocating for the rights of those under custody. Among these many justice reform issues, one very prominent issue is that of custodial torture.
As we all know – despite the efforts, or lack thereof, of mainstream media – an Anti-Torture Bill has been in the works for several years now. It is sardonic that a country of 200 million people does not have an extended definition for the word ‘torture’ in its Constitution. Cases have surfaced time and again of police brutality and institutionalised torture in custody, only to be brushed under the carpet with very little or, in many cases, no inquiry at all.
According to the Foundation for Fundamental Rights – an advocacy platform for basic human rights operating out of Islamabad – over 10,421 cases of torture in police custody were reported in Pakistan between 2000 and 2010. According to another report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a minimum of twenty cases of custodial torture are reported to them every month. These numbers are highly underestimated, given that many of these cases go unreported due to the prevailing fear of further suffering.
Among many others, one-way justice is frustrated in this country is the delay faced in amending laws that our colonisers left behind as unwanted souvenirs for us. Police torture is one of those colonial legacies that we have failed to repeal in our 70 years of independence. Whether it be the Wazir Laghari case in the 80s where torture in the jail led to the amputation of his legs or the Atif Ali Bokhari case in the 90s where the accused was beaten with rollers and his fingernails were pulled with pliers; things have remained the same year after year.
Police Torture Is Rife:
A recent study by the JPP shows that the situation is still very bleak. The report studied cases of police torture in Faisalabad. Conclusive signs of abuse were found in 1,424 cases out of a sample of 1,867 Medico-Legal Certificates (MLC) compiled by a government-appointed District Standing Medical Board between 2006 and 2012. In 96 other cases, physicians found signs indicating injury and required further testing to confirm. According to the data, out of the 1,424 cases, 58 of the victims were children and over 134 were women.
In addition to severe beating, victims were also subjected to sexual assault and humiliation, which included rape and being forced to strip. Over 61 per cent of the women in the sample had been sexually assaulted, 81 per cent had been subjected to cultural humiliation and 61 per cent had been forced to witness torture of others often family members. Based on the sheer magnitude of the figures, it is evident that police torture is not limited to a few isolated instances but rather systematically employed by police as a matter of practice.
Legislation Enacted, Or Not?
Even though Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) in 2010, it has remained unsuccessful in passing a law to criminalise torture in the nine long years since.
After much ado, a proposed Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Act was passed in the Senate in March 2015. However, the National Assembly failed to enact it in the set-out 90 days’ period. Four years later, the bill has still not seen the light of the day.
Recently, Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari announced that the bill will again be shared in the National Assembly session for consideration. This is undoubtedly a glimmer of hope, especially for those who were brave enough to report their cases, despite knowing the harrowing consequences of doing so. These consequences include but are not limited to not being fed for days on stretch, sexual assault, several days of being hung upside down and beaten with iron rods. Needless to point out the irony of that, it drives the point of this conversation home.
Long Way Ahead:
We are now a nation traumatised and resentful of its police force and reluctant to receive support from them because of this epidemic. This is every bit as cruel and morose as it sounds. The rule of law must reign supremacy and the only way to regain the trust of the people is to make sure the rule of law becomes the only rule in this country.
However, it is essential to mention here that the motivation to torture comes from the fact that police in Pakistan are highly underpaid and substantially overworked. It is crucial that the police are provided with the necessary resources to reliably investigate crimes. Having said that, there is no justification for the unlawful agony inflicted on people by the police and the acceptance of this torture as a norm in our society.
It is heart-wrenching, to say the least, that in terms of the criminal justice reforms required in Pakistan, we have a whole bonanza to pick from. It is high time we ask ourselves if we want to be the kind of country where documentaries about our Mukhtar Mais get us Emmys, but no number of Emmys get our people any justice.
With the newly elected government making statements to table this bill soon, indifference must become a figment of the past. The bill must not only criminalise custodial torture, but it should also define parameters for the prompt investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment. Perpetrators must be prosecuted and if convicted, they must be punished. It will need to be elaborated that if found accused of the offense, the officer will be suspended from service and terminated if found guilty. The officer will no longer receive any benefit from his time in service and will not be able to receive employment in civil service. The investigation needs to be conducted by an impartial third party. This law should extend to not just the police but any government agency with the power to conduct criminal investigations. The procedure followed during an investigation should also be consistent with the laws stipulated under the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Concerns and recommendations raised and made by international assessment bodies should be considered as well. This is undoubtedly a high urgency matter and the government should fulfil the promises it made in its first few months in the office.
Nida Jaffery is a communications and policy professional working in the field of development and human rights.