“I doubt there is anything more dreadful than being told that you’re going to die and then, sitting in a prison cell, just waiting for the moment”. Aftab Bahadur – a gifted artist, a devout Christian and a good friend – wrote these words on the eve of his execution which took place on June 10, 2015.
Arrested by the police at the age of 15, Aftab, a plumber’s assistant, was asked to pay a bribe of Rs50,000 in exchange for his freedom. He was unable to pay the amount and was tortured by the police into confessing that he murdered a mother and her two children. Aftab was awarded a death sentence on the basis of the coerced confession. He spent over 23 years on death row and was eventually sent to the gallows, pleading his innocence till the very end.
While Aftab’s journey through the criminal justice system may be heart-wrenching, it is hardly far from the norm. A majority of convictions in Pakistan are based entirely on oral testimonies rather than circumstantial or forensic evidence procured through modern investigative techniques. In addition, the police in Pakistan enjoy virtual impunity to torture suspects and witnesses into rendering false testimonies that often form the basis of death sentences. The brunt of such abuses of power is borne by the most vulnerable of Pakistan’s population – the economically disadvantaged, the physically and mentally disabled, religious minorities and children like Aftab.
For these reasons, a study conducted by the Ansar Burney Trust claims that over 60 percent of people on Pakistan’s death row are innocent. With 434 executions within a period of just over two years, the gross failure of Pakistan’s criminal justice system to protect vulnerable segments of society from police brutality and injustice have received unanimous condemnation from the international diplomatic community.
In June 2015, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, along with three other UN human rights experts, urged Pakistan to reinstate its moratorium on the death penalty – which had been lifted on December 2014. Condemning the death sentence on the basis of the heinous torture for another child offender, Shafqat Hussain, the UN experts stated that Pakistani authorities should carry out “a prompt and impartial investigation into all alleged acts of torture”.
Although Pakistan has been a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment since 2008, the successive governments have failed to enact any legislation that criminalises torture, provides penalties for perpetrators and introduces mechanisms for the rehabilitation and retribution of victims. The proposed Torture and Custodial Death (Punishment) Bill has remained pending in the Assembly since 2012. While the government of Pakistan, under its National Action Plan, had made a commitment to enact the law by July 2016, no concrete efforts have been made to fulfil its promise.
In the absence of comprehensive legislation, there currently exists no independent mechanism to investigate torture allegations against the police and law-enforcement agencies. As a result, victims of torture must inevitably rely on the police to investigate abuses of power.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the police face little to no repercussions for committing the worst forms of torture. In a study conducted by the Justice Project Pakistan, at least 1,424 confirmed cases of police torture were documented between 2012 and 2014 by a board of government-appointed medical professionals in Faisalabad. However, whenever the victims registered a complaint against the perpetrators, they faced countless threats and intimidation from the police and some were even forced to relocate to escape this menace.
The government of Pakistan is set to face, for the first time, the Committee Against Torture on April 18 and April 19 to review its efforts to fulfil its international legal obligations under the UN’s torture convention. The government, in its state report, has alleged that its current legal framework effectively prohibits and prevents torture. As per the report, all allegations of torture are promptly and adequately addressed through independent and impartial mechanisms. However, cases like Aftab’s demonstrate that the government is falling well below the international standards posited by the UN convention.
Over two years have passed since Aftab was executed. Despite repeated calls from social activists to take steps to prevent such instances of torture, Pakistan has failed to introduce any effective legal and policy reforms to stop the police and law-enforcement agencies from torturing people or taken any steps to investigate allegations of torture amongst its 8,000-strong death row population.
Pakistan’s devastating torture record remains an indelible blot on its ability to protect its citizens and move towards a criminal justice system that can effectively respond to the security challenges that the country currently faces.
The writer is the head of advocacy at the Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm based in Lahore.