LAHORE - Five private agents, caught by a joint investigation team over corruption charges, faced the worst police brutalities during a one-month-long cross-question here, The Nation has learnt.

The poor suspects collectively paid some Rs 0.5 million to the investigators to get rid of illegal detention and regular police torture. During their captivity, there was no one to feed their families since they were themselves the breadwinners.

The suspects arrested from footpaths were kept in illegal detention at a police facility in Lahore for more than one month. They were badly tortured and robbed of their belongings. Even their families had to pay tens of thousands of rupees to the members of the so-called joint investigation team to get rid of illegal police custody.

The latest case of illegal detentions in the Punjab province comes as a high-powered team, on the orders of the country’s top court, is investigating the much-hyped Panama Papers scam involving family members of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The appearance of Hussain Nawaz before the JIT has become talk of the town since the leakage of a CCTV image, showing the younger Sharif sitting inside an air-conditioned room while waiting for his turn to appear before the JIT.

All the five poor men heaved a sigh of relief as they were released from a Lahore police prison last week. The frightened men spoke to The Nation at a place of their choice with a request that only their last names should be mentioned in this investigative report.  One of them was Butt, a father of three, who along with four other agents was arrested from a footpath outside the district courts in early April. A joint team of Lahore police comprising officers from the crimes investigation agency or CIA police raided the footpaths and arrested five men for ‘facilitating’ motorists in getting back seized documents from local courts.

“We were kept in illegal detention at Kotwali centre of the Lahore CIA police for more than one month. Like other victims, my younger brother paid Rs 85,000 to the investigators for registering a criminal case against us,” said the visibly shaken Butt.  After one-month-long interrogation, these agents were handed over to the Islampura police by the CIA police for further investigations. The Islampura police ultimately filed a criminal case against the “gang of agents” and the very next day they were granted post-arrest bail from a local court.

“I wept bitterly as I reached home. My children had not seen my face for more than one month. My family had no information about our whereabouts. We were subjected to torture each night at the CIA centre,” said Khan, another victim.

Lahore’s corruption-riddled CIA police keep crime suspects in illegal detention for weeks and months. The notorious investigators frequently and ruthlessly torture the suspects to extort bribe from their families. Several suspects succumb to police torture every year in the Punjab province.

Khan says this was his first-ever experience in a police lock-up. He recalls, “On the night of Shab-e-Barat, we were offering prayers inside the barrack when a senior officer visited the centre. He ordered the policemen, “In sub ko bahir nikalo aur littar (strips of leather commonly used for beatings) maaro.” He continued to say, “We were brought out of the lockup. Some of us received seven lashes, some five and others four to six.”

In the meantime, the families of the victims paid tens of thousands of rupees to the policemen. “As we paid everything to the police, they stopped torturing us. We heaved a sigh of relief and asked relatives to pay more cash to them. My wife sold her gold ring to pay bribe to the police,” Khan said.

It was also learnt that the arrests were made when a senior police officer observed that the private agents seen on footpaths cause traffic mess outside the district courts. The officer then asked one of his colleagues to teach a lesson to these agents since they were involved in corruption.

The CIA police teams, headed by police officer Sarwar, raided the footpaths and arrested the agents.  In this province, private agents operate outside many government offices, including customs, excise, central police office and passport offices. They facilitate common people in filling official papers while applying for passports or other matters.

The customs agents are very powerful since they had formed an alliance called customs agents association. They operate openly inside the customs offices near Thokar Niaz Baig with the help of government officers. But they are never arrested or tortured.  “We used to sell one office file for Rs 100 to our clients besides providing all relevant information to them. “Are we committing corruption of Rs 100?” questioned Rana, another victim of police torture. He said the so-called joint investigation team of the CIA badly failed to establish any case against them.

“The CIA police had no evidence against us since we were not involved in any wrongdoing or corruption. We were kept in illegal detention and interrogated by police for more than 30 days. The CIA police shifted us to the lockup of Islampura police station when they failed to get any evidence against us,” Rana added.

According to insiders, the CIA police handed over these suspects to the Islampura police station because they were from Islampura police precincts. The Islampura police filed a case under different sections of the law (all bailable offences) against the gang of agents. The next morning, they were produced before the court. The judge granted post-arrest bail to all the suspects as he came to know that they were arrested from a footpath, according to the victims.

A senior police officer, when contacted, confirmed that five private agents had been kept in illegal police custody for more than a month. “This is a common practice here in town. The poor victims of crime are detained at secret cells for several weeks. This (case) is called typical police investigations,” the officer said while requesting anonymity. He further suggested that there must an independent inquiry against the officers involved in this episode.

“Actually, these guys were arrested during an anti-encroachment drive. To me personally, they were kept in illegal detention so that they could be taught a lesson and so that they could never return to the footpaths,” the police officer explained.  The victims were struggling to get back their belongings from the investigators ahead of Eid. “The police team snatched Rs 15,000 and a mobile phone from my pocket when we were put behind the bars. I have been paying visits to the CIA centre to get back my belongings, but to no avail,” Khan said. “I have no cash to buy food and clothes for my children in this holy month.”

Last year, the HRW in its reports titled “This crooked system” documented custodial torture and other serious human rights violations by the police in Pakistan. The report details the difficulties that victims of crime and police abuse face in obtaining justice. “The poor and other vulnerable or marginalised groups invariably face a lot of problems in seeking justice in a system that is rigged against them,” the report stated.