On June 26, the UN will observe its annual International Day in Support of Victims of Torture in order to remember and support the victims and survivors of this crime. This year, the day coincides with the 30-year anniversary of the enactment of the UN Convention Against Torture – an international human rights treaty that requires member states to take effective steps towards the prevention and prohibition of torture within its borders.
For the first time since the ratification of the UNCAT in 2010, Pakistan will commemorate this auspicious occasion with a roadmap for effective reform in the form of the concluding observations issued by the UN Committee Against Torture following its very first review of Pakistan.
The systemic and prevalent nature of torture by the police in Pakistan remains an indelible blot of the international reputation on one of the UN’s most active and prolific member states. A study by the Justice Project Pakistan revealed that over 1,424 confirmed cases of torture among a sample of 1,867 medico-legal certificates formulated by government-appointed doctors over a period of two years in Faisalabad alone.
As harrowing as these statistics appear, what is even more alarming is that none of the perpetrators faced any form of prosecution or disciplinary action. Impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of torture remains the single greatest barrier towards Pakistan fulfilling its obligations under the UN convention. In the absence of a comprehensive legal framework that criminalises torture, establishing an independent investigation mechanism to examine allegation and providing remedies for survivors, torture by the police forms the primary means of investigation in Pakistan.
The police resort to heinous methods of torture – like chittar, danda, dolli and falaka – to extract damning statements and confessions from suspects that form the basis of convictions and harsh sentences. It is not unusual for the police to round up several suspects following the commission of an offence. Following the arrests, those who are detained are tortured into paying exorbitant bribes. Those who comply with these orders are released whereas those who are unable to furnish the bribes are coerced into providing confessions.
The most vulnerable of Pakistan’s population – children, the poor, minority groups and the mentally ill – bear the greatest brunt of these injustices and thus form a significant portion of the country’s prison population. The UN Committee Against Torture rightly took notice of these grave violations and expressed its “deep concern” at the repeated reports “regarding the widespread use of torture by [the] police with a view of obtaining [a] confession from [people] in custody”. The committee noted that upon questioning, the state delegation could only provide evidence of 13 cases across Pakistan in which charges were brought against the police for torture and extra-judicial killings. However, neither of these cases provides any indication of them resulting in criminal penalties.
The widespread impunity for torture enjoyed by law-enforcement agencies in Pakistan came to the forefront as the country lifted a seven year de-facto moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014. In June 2015, four UN human rights experts urged the government to reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty due to widespread allegations of torture amongst Pakistan’s death-row inmates. However, the country’s execution spree has continued undeterred with over 468 executions over a period of less than three years.
The Justice Project Pakistan, through its latest campaign titled ‘Bring it Back’, highlights the stories of the most vulnerable of Pakistan’s death-row population – many of whom were executed as a consequence of convictions that rested primarily on evidence extracted through torture.
In a majority of these cases, the allegations of torture, which were substantiated with credible evidence, repeatedly fell on deaf ears at the highest forums in the country.
In its concluding observations, the UN Committee on Torture urged the government of Pakistan to revise and enact the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill, which has been pending for several years. This recommendation merely reiterates the commitments made by the government itself under its own National Action Plan on Human Rights to enact the legislation immediately.
As we approach yet another International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, we must honour the memories of all those citizens who have lost their lives as a result of this pandemic by ensuring the appropriate reform of the legislative framework. No more perpetrators must escape unpunished and no more victims must suffer unrehabilitated. We must finally join hands with our fellow UN member states and do its part in moving towards the global eradication of torture.
The writer is a human rights lawyer
working with the Justice Project Pakistan.