Is law enough to end systemic
custodial torture in Pakistan?


By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

It is quite remarkable that despite open warfare between the government and opposition benches, both sides have demonstrated unprecedented unanimity in passing a bill, moved by a private member from the opposition in the Senate, which criminalizes custodial torture and killings.
It is a known fact in Pakistani society that suspects allegedly involved in crimes against the state, people accused by rival parties and others are tortured after arrest in police stations. Custodial torture gradually developed into deep-rooted police culture in Pakistan after Britain, the colonial power, established police administration by its act of 1858. Although the act was amended three times under the British and a few times by the government of Pakistan, torture by police specifically was never a priority, or even an issue considered important by ruling parties and legislatures.
All powerful sections of society knew about the prevalence of custodial torture but remained unmoved, as the victims have been from lower social and economic classes: the poor, illiterate villagers, peasants and laborers. The manner of arrest and treatment of the accused at the police stations, invariably in all provinces of Pakistan, falls along social hierarchies. Those who have political backing or can bribe the police well enough may get humane, even friendly receptions. In rural Pakistan where inter-caste and personal rivalries are rife, people falsely implicate enemies in cases of theft, assault and kidnappings to land them in trouble at the hands of the police. The feudal political elites also use the strong arm of the police to humiliate villagers voting against them, and then intervene on their behalf to earn credit for next time. The tenser the constituency level political competition, the worse it becomes for the poor voters who get incriminated in some fabricated case and risk torture which is often times not just tolerated, but encouraged. The moment a suspect is arrested, his close family members begin running to procure timely interventions to escape brutality. It is either a person with political influence or payment of huge amounts, often taken on loans with heavy interest rates, or the selling of their animals, that helps relieve their distress.

A traditional argument for police torture is that police lacks the training, education and modern means of evidence collection. The easiest way for them is to torture, often brutally, for days and nights to get confessions, identify other accused, and recover weapons or items of theft. Sadly, the courts have been admitting evidence and admissions of guilt obtained by torture.
State officials and others in high positions have been known for devising a parallel justice system by passing confidential orders to eliminate known robbers, rapists or those involved in heinous crimes, while most in Pakistani society cheer the custodial murders on the sidelines. The people at large just don’t trust the judicial system.
The proposed bill to criminalize torture and killing reflects the outrage on social media and the emerging public opinion against torture. If endorsed in its present form by the National Assembly, it will punish any accused of custodial torture by three to ten years in prison and hundreds of thousands in fines to be paid to the victim. It will not be legal for a male policeman to arrest a female accused, as cases of rapes in custody are seldom reported by the victim out of fear. A guilty person may serve imprisonment for life.
The law may eventually transform police culture, but will require more; social change, judicial reforms and a shift in the political mindset of the elites.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais