'Those horrifying memories still haunt me'

Many lost their lives in custody, and those who survived torture are unable to erase the agonising scars it left on their bodies and minds

Custodial torture has been used by both dictatorial regimes and political governments as an instrument of ‘governance’ in Pakistan. Regardless of age, gender, and class, people have been tortured in police custody for decades. While many lost their lives in custody, those who survived torture are unable to erase the agonising marks it left on their bodies and minds.

Zahid Rafique Bhatti was taken into custody by Muridke police in 1983 “just because he was the son of a political worker, Rafique Bhatti”. He was in matric then. A journalist now, he shares with The News on Sunday (TNS) the story of his torture.

“Who cared during the Zia era whether I was juvenile or not. Police literally kidnapped me from near my house on charges of being involved in the activities of Al-Zulfiqar. They took me to Sialkot where the police tortured me so brutally that I could not walk for many days. The torture did not stop.”

“The most brutal part was that they put me in a sack with my hands tied at the back. Sometimes, when I went fainted, they would take me out and pour some water over me. As soon as I regained consciousness, they would again put me in the same position. I was being transported from one police station to another but the methods of torture remained the same.”

A couple of times, he recalls, he was told that he would be killed sometime in the night. “Sometimes it was just me and sometimes there were a couple of more people besides. We were taken away in a police van and a black mask on my face. The policemen would continuously ridicule me and discuss in detail how they would kill me. Those horrifying experiences shook me badly. The memories still haunt me,” he says.

Arif Khan, a political worker and another victim of custodial torture, was last taken into custody in November 2007. Since 1978, he says, he has been arrested and kept in custody for more than thirty times. “We were also arrested during the times of General Pervez Musharraf and Mian Nawaz Sharif but the most vicious oppression was during Zia’s reign. I saw many acquaintances being tortured. Many were killed or disabled for the rest of their lives. There was no substantial or charge sheet against them,” he tells TNS.

“Police used to cut our bodies with sharp objects, pull our nails from the roots, and release rats in our clothes – the horrifying feeling and pain of that torture cannot be forgotten,” recalls Surayya Azeem.

“Physical torture is hard to talk about. I have still to overcome its fear and its effect on my body. The memories of the torture and the instruments used for torture still haunt me,” he recalls. “They would not give us any medication after the torture [to kill the pain]. We were not even given adequate food.”

The most notorious place for torture was the Shahi Qila (Lahore Fort). “We were kept in complete darkness at the Lahore Fort so much so that we would not be able to differentiate between day and night. Sometimes, they would throw filth at the smell of which was unbearable,” narrates Khan.

Surayya Azeem recounts the days when she was both a witness and a target of custodial torture at various facilities in Lahore, Bahawalpur and Sahiwal.

“Police used to cut our bodies with various sharp objects, pull our nails from the roots, and release rats in our clothes while tying our trousers at the bottom so that the rats would stay in – the horrifying feeling and pain of that torture cannot be forgotten,” she tells the TNS.

Sajida Mir, a former member of the Punjab provincial assembly and president of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s Lahore women wing, was one of the political workers who faced custodial torture during the Musharraf era.

She was arrested by the police during her party’s long march in 2007. “Benazir Bhutto was then under house arrest in Lahore, and we were protesting against Musharraf. Police arrested me along with other female workers and tortured us physically at the station.”

“I was again arrested in Rawalpindi when we were protesting along with Benazir Bhutto. During the torture there my hand got fractured.”

Mian Farooq Kashif is currently working on a book on places used for custodial torture. The book focuses on dictatorship in Pakistan. The author himself has been a victim of ruthless torture at the Lahore Fort, police stations and other places.

“I was arrested during Zia’s regime without any charge only because I was a political worker. I was kept at various police stations for 6 months. Every time I would face new types of physical and mental torture,” he tells TNS.

“The purpose of writing this book is to produce historical record of the ruthless police torture prevalent in Pakistan as there has been little documentation on the topic. I also intend to bring on record how political governments as well as dictatorships have used the police and custodial torture to achieve their own goals.”

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

'Those horrifying memories still haunt me': Police torture in Pakistan