The case against torture

September 15,2019

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.A more deplorable incident couldn’t have taken place this World Teachers’ Day. In Lahore, a 10th grade student was beaten to death by his...

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The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

A more deplorable incident couldn’t have taken place this World Teachers’ Day. In Lahore, a 10th grade student was beaten to death by his heartless teacher for failure to memorize some lesson. In an apparently unrelated, but in reality an interlocking incident, a mentally-challenged person had died in police custody allegedly of torture a few days before.

Academic institutions being a microcosm of society, physical punishment is to schools what violence or torture is to society at large – a way of life. Each in its own right is a convenient instrument in the hands of the ‘authorities’ to solve problems or answer questions, which otherwise would require buckets of hard work. Thus for the police giving an accused a good stick is the time-tested means to extract information and coerce confession. Only the stubbornly thick-skinned can remain silent in the face of torture.

By the same token, primary and secondary level education institutions by and large continue to hold fast to the maxim, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child.” If a student is not regular or punctual, is short on discipline, is slack on doing their homework, or is otherwise weak in studies, caning or smacking him is considered to be the only remedy.

Torture in police stations, schools and elsewhere is inspired by the deterrence view of punishment. Its proponents maintain that the sole purpose of punishment is to deter others from doing a wrong act. Hence, punishment-awarding authorities should make an example of the offender. This view of punishment leads to two conclusions, both of which are difficult to accept. The first conclusion is that if the only purpose of punishment is deterrence, it does not really matter whether the convict is guilty or innocent and thus there is no need for a fair trial. All that’s needed is to create fear in society. The second conclusion is that since the degree of deterrence depends on the severity of punishment, it does not matter whether punishment for an offence is too severe. Thus if the proponents of the deterrence view have to choose between amputation of hand and imprisonment for stealing, they will prefer the former for being more severe and thus potentially having a greater deterrence effect.

Punishment is a necessary implication for living in society. In an ideal society, everyone is responsible and law-abiding and there is no need for punishment. However, in reality, no society is completely law-abiding. There are people who kill and rob and show little regard for the rights of others. Punishment of such persons is necessary for ensuring sanctity of law and respect for the rights of others and preserving the social order. And this very purpose is defeated if punishment is awarded for its own sake, an innocent person is punished, if punishment is awarded without a fair trial, if punishment is more severe than the offence, or in case it undermines the dignity of the person.

Thus punishment is not only necessary; it must also be justified. Is torture or corporal punishment justified? As already mentioned, the deterrence view of punishment leads to unpalatable conclusions. However, there’s much more to both torture and corporal punishment than deterrence. Over centuries, confession has been known by the term ‘the queen of proofs.’ The essential idea is that the suspects’ response to immense physical pain constitutes the basis for establishing their guilt or innocence. If torture doesn’t make an accused talk, he’s innocent; otherwise he is guilty. Since very few can withstand infliction of extreme physical or mental pain, torture can make almost everyone confess regardless of whether they are guilty. In this way, torture entails miscarriage of justice. However, for the authorities, it is a simple, quick and sure-shot way to find out the ‘truth.’ Whether the courts are willing to buy the torture-manufactured truth is another question.

Physical punishment in school serves a similar purpose. It induces quick and costless (for the teacher) behavioral adjustment in errant students but at a great social and personal cost. It freaks out students, grinds down their confidence and erodes their self-respect. A teacher should be seen as a role model, not as a holy terror. In the forbidding atmosphere of schools where corporal punishment is in vogue, the spirit of inquiry takes the backseat, the use of logic and reason is looked upon as taboo and rote learning is prized as a grand virtue. Not only that, the behavioural change wrought by corporal punishment is at best a passing phenomenon, as the underlying cause of a student’s indiscipline or unsatisfactory performance is left unaddressed.

Both torture and corporal punishment are symptoms of an increasingly sanctimonious society. ‘Innocent unless proven guilty’ is the fundamental legal norm in all civilized societies. However, this golden precept is turned on its head in a sanctimonious society, where others are treated as guilty unless they prove themselves innocent to the satisfaction of the former. In a civilized society, a distinction is made between an accused and a culprit. If a person is charged with a crime, say robbery, the prosecution has to establish beyond reasonable doubt the veracity of charges against him. Only after the accused has been convicted in a fair trial is he then called a culprit. But in the eye of the self-righteous, mere allegations or perceptions are sufficient to make a suspect an offender. A large and growing segment of our youth has been taken in hook, line, and sinker by the self-righteous. For such youth, tolerance, dissent and ratiocination are the unmistakable signs of moral weakness, while reviling, demonizing and punishing ‘enemies’ are the highest virtues of a patriotic citizen and a true believer. Such toxic narratives suck a society dry when their exponents come to wield power. Political opponents are stigmatized as plunderers and dacoits, while the government casts itself as being on a messianic mission to root out corruption and demonize and damn those who by a freak of fate find themselves to be on its wrong side.

Pakistan is a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (CAT), which is unequivocal in prohibiting torture. No exceptional circumstances can be invoked as a justification for torture. All acts of torture have to be treated as offences under criminal law. The convention requires that education and information regarding prohibition against torture is included in the training of law-enforcement personnel as well as in the rules or instructions issued in regard to their duties and functions.

The CAT stipulates that in case of torture, prompt and impartial investigation shall be carried out. The legal system must provide that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress as well as adequate compensation. Any statement made as a result of torture can’t be used as evidence in courts. Other acts of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture are also prohibited.

Thus in compliance with the CAT, the federal and provincial governments are required to take effective legislative, administrative and judicial measures to prevent acts of torture in their respective jurisdictions. That said, our entire criminal investigation system is based on torture and most of the ‘evidence’ that is produced in courts is extracted by torturing the accused. From time to time incidents are reported in which the police tortured a suspect to mutilation or death. It may be of interest to the reader that the CAT is on the list of the international conventions whose membership and effective implementation is mandatory for the European Union’s GSP Plus scheme, which grants duty-free treatment to substantial imports from Pakistan. Thus from an economic point of view as well, there is a strong case for putting an end to torture and other forms of degrading punishment.


Twitter: hussainhzaidi


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