Rise in custodial deaths troublesome, say activists

A steady rise in deaths in police custody has led to public outrage which may help force reforms in Pakistan’s criminal justice system. As New Pakistan recently reported, there have been several recent cases related to custodial deaths: A man’s death in custody was attributed to a heart attack and a woman’s death to hemorrhage. As human rights activists note, these explanations are unacceptable.

In a recent oped titled ‘Roots of Custodial deaths,’ leading human rights activist I.A. Rahman wrote “Death caused by fear of torture cannot be accepted as natural. A police comment on Salahuddin’s death by torture was that he was making big money, ie torturing him was justified. Now the use of smartphones at police stations has been banned across Punjab; this will not end torture in custody. In fact, people will be deprived of a source of information about police excesses. Obviously, police officers, at least many of them, are surprised at the outcry over a routine practice that has always been known to the top police echelons and the government — in fact, has often been encouraged by both.”

Rahman discusses two issues, that of deaths in police stations and torture at unauthorised detention centres. “Deaths in police custody occur when suspects succumb to torture, which is all that investigation and interrogation mean. All suspects are tortured to extract confession. No article of the Constitution is abused more than Article 14 (2) which, unfortunately, bars torture only if it is used to extract evidence. There is evidence to establish that there have been alliances between politicians and policemen to kill citizens. The way the law enforcement agencies have been kept unaware of modern, non-violent means of investigation betrays a streak of sadism in the state’s mindset. Deaths at police stations will continue so long as the archaic, torture-based methods of investigation remain in vogue. That suspects are often tortured at unauthorised places of detention has been known to the government and citizens for decades. These torture dens have been found in police functionaries’ official quarters, rented premises and even in a mosque.”

According to Rahman, “the roots of custodial death, however, lie outside the police domain. For about a decade, the state has been lowering its respect for citizens’ rights to life, liberty and security. Laws have been made to provide for long periods of detention without trial. The killing of journalists and other human rights defenders, as well as enforced disappearances, are glossed over without remorse. The state is not ­bothered about a moral justification for its system of rule, and relies more on force than reason. It has also become more vengeful than ever. As a result, people are becoming more and more violent and brutalised. They cannot settle even petty differences through peaceful exchanges, and reason has been replaced with firepower. Children are beaten to death by parents and teachers. Besides, protesters against custodial deaths are limited to the victims’ families. No death in custody has bought the people out into the streets in thousands, as happens in many other parts of the world.”

Finally Rahman notes that Pakistan “needs a new people-friendly police law that will offer citizens firm protection against custodial death.” To this end, he states, a “bill to ban corporal punishment has been pending in the Senate for years for want of clearance by the Council of Islamic Ideology and the relevant Senate committee’s approval. What will the world say about a country where corporal punishment is defended as part of the people’s (or some senators’) culture? Death in custody, killing of children by parents and teachers, and pumping of bullets into the corpses of missing persons are symptoms of a terribly sick society and a state that has lost its way. Nothing short of radical changes in the system of governance and social structures will enable the people of Pakistan to redeem themselves as a civilised community.”

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