Why torture?

Lack of scientific tools and better investigation techniques force investigators to use torture

“I do not support torture, but I do support enhanced interrogation techniques to learn from terrorists what we need to learn to keep the bomb from going off.” This is how Mitt Romney, the then-governor of Massachusetts, responded to the vitriol by the press in 2007. This indeed reflects the mindset of many people burdened with the responsibility of ensuring the security of the people. Police torture in Pakistan can be viewed in a similar context.

In any civilised society, legitimate use of force or violence is a monopoly of the state, which is exercised through its law enforcement agencies, police being one of them. However, use of violence by state officials in not an unfettered power and there are limits within which it can be exercised. The law provides broad parameters within which force can be used, exceeding those renders any agency or officer liable to punitive action. Article 156 of the Police Order 2002 clearly lays down a penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment for torture. According to Punjab Police statistics, in the last 5 years (2015-2019), twenty one criminal cases alleging custodial torture and 46 murder cases over death in custody were registered against police officers. In addition, departmental action taken against those involved in criminal cases resulted in 23 dismissals and 44 other penalties in 2019 alone. This data indicates that not only there is a punitive mechanism provided in the law, but that action was also taken against the delinquents. So we have to look into other factors leading to custodial torture and not just blame a presumed impunity for it.

Use of force by police is a wide subject which includes torture-based interrogation/investigation, custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings, and the use of force against mobs. However, for this article we will keep the scope of discussion limited to torture in police custody.

Torture is considered one of the most negative features of police culture in Pakistan. The police culture finds its roots in the larger societal culture and thus, cannot be seen in isolation. Violence and use of force are inbuilt in our feudalistic and patriarchal society — the strong use it against the weak, the elders against the young and men against women. Torture is even more institutionalised in our traditional educational system where it is a kind of virtue for pupils to tolerate it, especially in the madaaris. Though this is no justification but it can be said that police culture is only a subculture of the overall societal culture, and police officers derive many of their attitudes and behaviours from the society. A police officer at a police station, being someone in a position of authority, follows the same pattern.

How torture found its way into police practices has a historical background. Police in the Indo-Pak region were designed after the Irish constabulary – designed with the objective to control the colony, and not as an organisation to serve the public. Revenue collection was the main objective for which it was necessary to keep the public on a tight leash. There was zero tolerance for disorder and rebellion. To achieve this objective, torture, illegal detentions, custodial and extrajudicial killings were promoted in a systematic way by placing all the administrative, executive and judicial powers in a single officer called the deputy commissioner. On one hand, he was responsible for law and order, and on the other he was entrusted with conducting judicial enquiries in cases of torture, custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings. It was but natural that in most cases the delinquents were exonerated and the torture and killings became routine.

According to Punjab Police, 21 criminal cases alleging custodial torture and 46 murder cases over death in custody were registered against police officers in the last five years.

Unfortunately, after the Independence, the goras were replaced by brown colonial masters whose interests rested in the continuation of the system rather than changing it. The Police Order 2002 provided a legal framework to address these issues but unfortunately, it could not be implemented in its letter and spirit and succumbed to political expediencies. Public Safety Commissions and independent Police Complaint Authorities could have effectively dealt with the issue but resistance from political and influential quarters razed the whole scheme to the ground.

Internal dynamics and compulsions of practical police work also force officers to resort to torture. The major task of police is to find out evidence of crime and put it before the court – a task which is not only tedious but also time consuming and requires a great deal of investigative infrastructure in the form of scientific tools and equipment along with forensic support. Lack of scientific investigation infrastructure on one hand, and the rush of work on the other tempt investigators to go for ‘third degree’ in a bid to produce quick results and to ward off the ever-building pressure from the top, public and media and the government. Poor and archaic training patterns also constrain the investigation officers to use scientific tools and techniques even where they are available. Although in recent years there has been significant development in forensic facilities, at least in the Punjab, and training patters have also undergone considerable change, there is still a lot to be done in this direction to bring it at par with other countries of the world.

Recoveries in property crimes are yet another impetus to torture. Victims of property crimes like theft, robbery, etc are not interested in anything other than the recovery of their stolen property. Police are under a lot of pressure to effect recoveries, and in the process resort to torture in various forms – physical, mental or both. This is how most custodial deaths occur. The analysis would not be complete without mentioning corruption, and politically motivated torture to settle scores in personal feuds, and to crush political opponents by hiring the agency of a police station. Another area related to custodial torture is prison where inmates are subjected to physical and mental torture to achieve certain ends. However, information from prisons does not come out as easily as from police stations; prison torture also gains less publicity than the latter. It may not be a digression to mention that the mental torture perpetrated in other public service departments is no less agonising than police and prisons.

How does one fix it? The first thing we need to do is to promote the full use of scientific tools and investigation techniques. This starts with preserving and scientific processing of the crime scene. That is where police can get the best possible forensic evidence. We need to raise a specialist and dedicated cadre of educated and highly trained investigators who should not be assigned any other task. Investigation centres should be separate from police stations and housed in specially designed buildings. Training of officers along modern lines cannot be over emphasised in this regard. This will help investigation officers (IOs) focus on investigation along scientific lines without resorting to torture. The Police Order 2002 must be implemented in letter and spirit to establish a democratic oversight over police malpractices through public safety commissions and police complaint authorities. Political interference needs to be minimised by guaranteeing security of tenures and preventing arbitrary punitive actions against officers. Zero tolerance for corruption-driven torture is a must to bring down its prevalence. All said and done, to eliminate torture within the police force we also need to focus on the culture of violence and torture in families, education system and the society in general – after all that is where we all belong and from where we draw our basic attitudes and behaviours.

The author is a senior police officer

Pakistan police: lack of scientific tools, probe methods force investigators to use torture