Torture in official custody has become such a common practice in Pakistan that people do not even complain against it
The gory memories of two tragic incidents in the recent past are hard to go away. In one, members of an innocent family were showered with bullets during a counter terrorism operation by the police in Sahiwal, and in the other a reportedly mentally-challenged man, Salahuddin, was tortured to death in Rahim Yar Khan.
The family mentioned in the first case was driving out of the city to attend a wedding but the police took them as terrorists and opened fire on them. The incident came into public knowledge because of a video, recorded and shared by a person present at the location. Failing this, it would have been much easier for the police to declare them terrorists. Salahuddin, the person referred to in the second incident, was a suspect in ATM cash theft cases and had been apprehended by the police. In a video released after his death, he was seen asking a police official where they had learnt such methods of torture. There was public outrage following the release of the video.
These two incidents caused a lot of hue and cry, prompting the government to make announcements like ensuring justice and introducing the much needed police reforms without delay. There was talk about improving internal accountability and introducing external as well. But soon all of these commitments were forgotten. Promises to bring the culprits before courts turned out to be mere lip service and soon, the accused were cleared of criminal charges, and were allowed to resume duty.
These are just two of the countless incidents where police have used brute force without legal sanction to extract information or gain custody of the accused, or have exterminated them instead of arresting them. Torture in official custody has become such a common practice in Pakistan that most of the victims do not even complain against it and are content to get their names off the suspects’ list.
Over the years, police officials with strong backing, political connections and track records of carrying out police ‘encounters’ and ‘raids’ would join gatherings to decide property feuds etc, and protect their interests as well. The parties to such cases dared not disobey such police officials, lest they should become victims of their wrath. It is also believed that torture and the fear of torture are the most effective tools of extracting money as bribe from the accused or their families, and that is why law enforcing authorities have resorted to it, often with impunity.
This situation exists despite the fact that Pakistan signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) on April 2008, and ratified it in June 2010. The convention was adopted by the United Nations in 1984 but it took around two and half decades for Pakistan to adopt it.
A proposed legislation titled Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill 2018, is under consideration. There is severe criticism of the legislature from certain quarters who say there is a criminal delay in passing this legislation.
If approved and implemented in essence, this law can go a long way in putting an end to custodial torture and punishing the violators, says Hafiz Shahid, a criminal law practitioner based in Lahore. Citing the proposed legislation, he says, torture in this context can be “any act committed by any public servant or any person acting in an official capacity, or at the instigation of or with the acquiescence of any public servant or any person acting in any official capacity, with specific intent to inflict physical or mental pain or suffering, not incidental to lawful sanctions, upon another person taken or held in custody” for the purpose of:
“The budget for investigation at police stations and training of police officials must be enhanced. Currently, the investigation budget per case is around Rs 450 which is ridiculously low,” says Muhammad Ali from Rozan.
a) Obtaining from that person or some other person any information or a confession; or
b) Punishing that person for any act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed; or
c) Intimidating or coercing that person or a third person; or
d) For any other reason based on discrimination of any kind; or
e) Harassing, molesting, or causing harm whether physical or mental to a female for any of the above purposes.
Similarly, he says, custodial death in terms of law means the death of a person occurring during or after release from custody, directly or indirectly caused by and substantially attributable to acts committed upon the deceased while in custody. So, he says, custodial death includes death occurring in police, private or medical premises, in a public place or in a police or other vehicle in jail. It also includes death occurring while a person is being arrested or taken into detention or being questioned.
Shahid points out that inflicting mental pain and causing humiliation are forms of torture hard to report but need to be checked. Many a time, he says, innocent people have suffered heart attacks when abused or made to stand naked in front of their family members and others at police stations or other places. Though medical examination can verify physical torture inflicted on a person it is not possible to do the same for mental torture to figure out what a person has been made to go through, he adds. Shahid says this aspect can be tackled by bringing about a behavioural change among the police force, imparting them human rights-based professional training and equipping them with scientific skills/equipment to investigate cases rather than resorting to third-degree methods.
Though a comprehensive law in this context is awaited, torture is intolerable under several laws of the country. For example, Article 14 (2) of the Constitution of Pakistan states that “no person shall be subjected to torture for the purpose of extracting evidence”. Section 337-K of the Pakistan Penal Code criminalises causing hurt to extort confession, or to compel restoration of property. The Section 156 (d) of the Police Order 2002 prescribes imprisonment up to five years and a fine for the police officer who tortures a person in his custody.
Muhammad Ali from Rozan – an organization working on police reforms – suggests that the budget for investigation at the level of police stations and training of police officials must be enhanced. Currently, he says, the investigation budget per case is around Rs 450 which is ridiculously low. He asks how it is possible to expect the police not to resort to their ‘traditional’ methods in such a situation. He says the allocation for training is less than one per cent of the police budget, “which hints towards our priorities”. Till our police is trained on modern grounds and imparted scientific skills, he says, it cannot get rid of archaic methods to investigate and interrogate.
Ghulam Ahmed Raza, a social worker and human rights activist, points out that mere law making cannot cure the problems because people find ways to circumvent it. He says the society on the whole must develop an aversion to torture. He says many a time police do not record the custody of a person and keep them at a private torture cell so that it cannot be established in the court that they were tortured while in their custody. Safeguards must be added in the law to take care of such issues, he says.