It is a commonly accepted fact that torture is synonymous with policing in Pakistan. Despite its endemic status, perpetrators of torture face virtually no accountability and continue to operate in a climate of impunity. Whilst the Constitution guarantees protection from torture as a fundamental right, there currently exists no legislation criminalising torture and providing protective relief to its victims. In 2010 Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (UNCAT), under which the state is under an obligation to enact an effective law to implement the provisions of the Convention domestically. However four years later, while various drafts of the Anti Torture Bill have been pending in the assemblies for over a year, the current PML-N government managed to expeditiously enact the Protection of Pakistan Act that increases risk of torture by granting law enforcement agencies with unfettered powers of arrest or shoot at sight without a warrant. The government’s lack of political will in criminalising torture stems from a reluctance to reform the conduct of policing in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s police system has failed to break free from its colonial heritage. Designed as a repressive force to maintain law and order under British colonial rule, Pakistani police clings to old methods of threat and abuse to undertake crime investigation and law enforcement. Police officers receive little or no training and resources to undertake proper investigation and often face unreasonable pressure from their superiors to resolve cases quickly. Additionally, police are often diverted from their duties to act as “VIP” patrols for politicians. As a result, instead of gathering forensic evidence and witness accounts, torturing suspects and their families to extract information and confessions becomes the primary course of action. In fact, ‘police remand’ (the 15 day period that police is allowed to keep a person in custody with the permission of the Magistrate) is synonymous in popular vernacular as a license to torture suspects. Suspects are often taken to private torture cells operated by the police off official premises to avoid any unwanted scrutiny or accountability. Superiors and courts generally turn a blind eye to such abuse of power and only get involved, reluctantly, if a suspect dies or ends up in a hospital or if the case gets media attention.

Police officers who may join the force with a resolve to ‘protect and serve’, eventually, fall into abusive patterns to ensure their survival within the larger ‘thana culture’. Junior ranking officers who deal directly with criminal suspects, work in stressful conditions, often with a lack of proper equipment training and resources. In keeping with the colonial hierarchy between low ranking officers and superiors, senior officers are recruited directly into management positions. As a result, junior officers have no incentive of potential promotion and therefore commit acts of torture with no threat of accountability. Ironically, primary reliance on confessions through torture only makes for weak prosecution cases that are mostly thrown out of court and is responsible for Pakistan’s low conviction rate.

Individuals who are poor, and socially or politically marginalised are especially vulnerable to torture on account of their inability to bribe police officers or have connections with political or influential figures who can intervene on their behalf. Additionally, they are unlikely to pursue action against the police for fear of retaliation and unwillingness to go through yet another criminal trial. Women are also subjected to heinous acts of torture, specifically designed to take advantage of their vulnerable position in society. According to a report by the Justice Project Pakistan on the ‘Abuse of Women by The Faisalabad Police’, women are more likely to be subjected to sexual assault, cultural humiliation and forcibly witness torture of other people. Women are raped, forced to remove all their clothing and touched inappropriately by police in public, at home and in prison. Women are also less likely to report being tortured on account of facing social stigma and ostracism.

Article 12 of the UNCAT requires prompt and impartial investigation into complaints of torture by an independent body and not under the direction or influence of the police. Independent investigations are critical to reducing impunity surrounding police torture in Pakistan. In the absence of an independent mechanism to investigate allegations of torture against police officers, any criminal prosecution for torture essentially involves the police investigating itself. Even if such an investigation was carried out objectively, it would not enjoy the confidence and cooperation of the victim and his/her family. Additionally, in many cases the absence or intentional destruction of records by the police, including registration of arrest and detention or in some cases a post-mortem examination, allows the police to easily deny the account of the complainant. The newly constituted National Human Rights Commission holds powers of inquiry suo moto or into complaints of torture and may also undertake visits to jails and other places of detention. However, the Commission is only competent to publish an inquiry report and issue recommendations to the government based on its findings. Additionally, even three years after the enacting law came into place, it is unclear whether the Commission is functional or not.

An eradication of torture requires a deeper understanding into the larger system of impunity that has been perpetuating it since before the inception of Pakistan. The Government needs to publicly demonstrate an unequivocal resolve to hold perpetrators accountable. Enactment of legislation criminalising torture is only the first step. There needs to be an overhaul of the police structures and institutional culture including, improved training and equipment; opportunities for promotion and advancement for low-ranking officers; and a training curriculum focusing on forensic tools and human rights principles. Additionally, independent Police Complaint Authorities specifically tasked with monitoring police investigation and the well-being of criminal suspects can pierce through the impunity enjoyed by police abuse. A recounting of victim’s experiences and the provision of monetary compensation and retribution through a truth and reconciliation commission can also serve as a platform to collectively recognise and start anew from decades of human rights violations committed under our criminal justice system.