The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Pakistan to pass a bill that would assign the torture of prisoners as criminal offense and provides them legal safeguards. The move comes following analysis of the gruesome condition of prisoners under police custody. Several legal frameworks in the country already prohibit the use of torture against citizens by the police and law enforcement authorities. The constitution of Pakistan and the Pakistan Penal Code provide protection against torture, but experts point out that there are no specific laws in compliance with the international requirements against custodial punishments.
On July 12, 2021, the Senate unanimously approved The Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Act, 2019 that was submitted by senator Sherry Rehman and endorsed by the federal minister for human rights, Dr Shireen Mazari. Legal analysts say the bill is unique in its kind as for the first time the country has devised a legal mechanism to outlaw torture of prisoners. The Senate bill delineates a proper definition of torture that was missing before which now includes both physical and psychological torture. The bill suggests jail terms and fines for public servants who are involved in custodial punishments, death, and sexual violence with a fine of Rs 2 million along with a maximum 10-year sentence for custodial torture. For custodial death and sexual violence, the bill proposes a fine of Rs3 million along with imprisonment sentence.
Analysts observe that the police use torture and have normalised it for the purpose of criminal investigation. They employ different abusive means to extract evidence and confessions from the prisoners and sometimes use violence for the sake of obtaining bribe. It has also been noted that the detainees who belong to an impoverished background are prone to experience more harsh treatments as the elite uses influence and money to avoid the torture. The police are not trained professionally that causes them to use violent means to commit investigations.
“Pakistan needs to reform its police to end abuse and protect detainees from the mistreatment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Passing the anti-torture bill would be an important first step”, he remarked.
Right activists stress upon the need of passing the bill and its effective implementation as the country is grappling with the issue of human rights abuse through the mistreatment of its prisoners and suspects.
Advocate Javeria Younes has prepared a research report on custodial torture in Pakistan by surveying different lawyers, social activists and agencies in five major cities across Pakistan. She found from the records of Madadgaar Helpline that between 2009 and 2013, the cases of torture of both men and women have seen a drastic increase. According to the findings of Madadgar Helpline, 743 cases of police torture had been reported, with 406 cases from Punjab and 304 from Sindh. The human rights group said the cases of torture are more prevalent in Punjab than in any other province of the country.
Observers say the culture of police torture has been eroding away the public trust and declining the prospects of attaining justice from law enforcement agencies. The police receive less professional training and sustains on bribe that undermines their transparent working. The accountability mechanisms are already weakened in the country which, according to rights activists, gives police open routes to commit violence. The HRW says that members of marginalised communities are particularly at risk of facing culture of police torture.
“A lack of accountability in police excesses has fostered a culture of impunity. Pakistani police are often under-resourced and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern world,” said Saroop Ijaz, a Pakistani researcher for HRW.
“The police force needs to be modernized, and police officials involved in custodial deaths and other rights violations should be held accountable through a transparent and efficient mechanism.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken initiative against brutal treatments meted out to prisoners by the police and has promised to bring reforms in the police to stop the intense custodial punishments given to the inmates.
Experts advise that the reforms in the police and their training and transparency is something that can take years to produce desirable results, but the implementation of the law will lead to regulated mechanisms that can help citizens take a sigh of relief. They say both the police and the prisoners should be subject to fair treatment by law and independent bodies should be formed to investigate torture cases.