PAKISTAN: A deafening silence on International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

To state that torture is endemic and rampant in Pakistan would be an understatement; torture has in fact become a lifestyle, a norm that is the beginning and end of judicial process in Pakistan. Thousands suffer torture everyday, yet they dare not report their ordeal. The law enforcement agencies that are responsible for this torture have been given undue powers to use and abuse, through laws such as the Pakistan Protection Act (PPA). As a result, victims’ torture narratives read as gruesome and inhuman horror stories.

Pakistan has more than 2000 police stations in the country, and it is common practice for at least one person to be tortured in each police station daily, to obtain confessions or for the purpose of extortion. Victims cannot report these incidents, as the report would have to be made to the same police force responsible for the crime.

Although Pakistan has ratified the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT), it has failed to criminalise torture in custody. There is no official data available on the incidents of torture occurring, it being the least documented human rights abuse in the country, but some 1500 cases of torture are reported yearly. None of the cases come before the courts however, due to the absence of any law against torture.

While the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is marked globally, its significance is lost in Pakistan, where the majority of the legal community and legislators do not see torture as illegal or unconstitutional. Legislators themselves have been reluctant to enact an anti torture law, despite considerable lobbying and sensitization by several civil society organizations and activists. While citing the deteriorating law and order situation as the reason for not having a torture law, the parliament in fact fears a backlash from the military establishment. This is why despite a lapse of several months and approval from the senate, the anti-torture bill awaits approval from the National Assembly. Moreover, the initial bill recommended by civil society groups was rendered toothless by removing the military and paramilitary from its ambit, and weakening the accountability mechanism incorporated in the bill before presenting it in the senate.

Police custody, legally custody of the state, should constitutionally and ideally be the safest place for individuals, and yet for citizens in Pakistan, it is the most dangerous place. Deprived of all their constitutional rights, the alleged accused is at the mercy of his captors. Political interests and personnel vendettas often make use of the police to subdue opponents. The purpose of torture is therefore not only obtaining information, but inculcating fear.

At the same time, police routinely employ torture as the only means of investigation. Rather than beginning an investigation with the circumstances and evidence, the police generally start their investigation by arresting and extorting confessions from innocent bystanders. The lack of uniform policing laws has created legal lacunas that hinder reprimanding of police officers. Those who routinely indulge in torture during investigation do so with no fear of any action initiated against them. Internal enquiry by the police is a farce that does little to curb the tide of custodial torture.

There is also an overall societal acceptance of torture that impedes its eradication. Even senior lawyers and judges feel that torture is sometime necessary to deal with hardened criminals; the catch 22 lies in defining who is a hardened criminal. At the same time, reputed constitution law expert Advocate Zain Sheikh says one reason the judiciary has not addressed torture extensively is that victims fail to report in time, resulting in evidence being lost. He also cited the silence of the press; except for a few cases of gross misconduct, most torture cases go unreported. Furthermore, even if the culprit is reprimanded, the police exact revenge by filing fake cases against the victim.

Civil society, lawyers and NGOs must push for an anti-torture act to curb the tide of torture. Simultaneously, there is a strong need of reforms in the policing and investigation system, and in separating prosecution from the government. Transparency in the investigation process can be made simply by installing a CCTV camera inside the investigation room and making the recording a court record.

Although Pakistan pledged to the UN Human Rights Council that it would change its laws to comply with UNCAT, it has instead enacted repressive laws such as the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO), which provides absolute powers to the law enforcement agencies, thereby increasing the incidence of torture. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) thus calls for the urgent promulgation and implementation of a Torture Act in accordance with the UNCAT. If torture is proved, the perpetrator must be reprimanded, relieved from duty and punished. The enquiry commission for such incidents should be an independent body comprising of senior police officers, civilians and ex victims.