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.”

Death of a veteran political activist

On August 25, veteran trade unionist, political activist and writer Biyyothil Mohyuddin Kutty, passed away in Karachi. Mr Kutty was born in Tirur (present-day Kerala’s Malappuram) on July 15, 1930 and migrated to Pakistan in 1949. Kutty was associated with the Pakistan-India People’s Forum For Peace and Democracy.

Kutty “was jailed during the dictatorships of Gen Ayub and Gen Zia as well as during the country’s first democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His association with Mir Ghous Bux Bizenjo remained unaltered until the veteran Baloch politician breathed his last 30 years ago. He edited late Bizenjo’s auto­biography and had been latter’s political adviser for decades and secretary to Mr Bizenjo when he was Balochistan’s governor.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan held a reference in Kutty’s memory in Lahore. “HRCP’s Secretary-General Harris Khalique said that Mr Kutty’s profound interest in different facets of life was matched by his deep interest in humanity and the human condition. As a sharp-eyed chronicler of Pakistan’s politics, he is of course known for having edited In Search of Solutions: An Autobiography of Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo. Mr Khalique also recalled Mr Kutty’s involvement in the World Social Forum held in Pakistan in 2006, adding that, as a veteran activist of the left, Mr Kutty had never sought to cast himself as a political leader – he remained a political worker till his last breath. HRCP’s Honorary Spokesperson I A Rehman, a long-time comrade of Mr Kutty, recalled his remarkable contribution to people’s understanding of Balochistan – its aspirations and the challenges it faced. Mr Rehman also said that Sixty Years in Self Exile: No Regrets was not just Mr Kutty’s autobiography, but also the story of Pakistan and its social and political frustrations. He remembered Mr Kutty as being driven by passion and the sense that injustice was not something to sit back and accept. Concluding the reference, Dr Mehdi Hasan, HRCP’s Chairperson, said that it was critical that Pakistan’s youth be made aware of the significance of Mr Kutty’s life and work and the principles by which he lived.”

Pakistani Establishment’s India Paranoia

The Pakistani establishment’s paranoia about India appears to have reached fever pitch, from writing letter to the UNICEF to ask for removal of Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra as a goodwill ambassador to accusing social media giants of bias because of their ‘Indian employees.’

When Facebook and twitter suspended several Pakistani social media accounts for posting messages in support of violent action against Kashmir, the response of the head of ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor was to blame “Indian staff” working for these social media giants.

The government of Pakistan has also “lodged an official complaint with the United Nations, demanding the removal of Indian actress Priyanka Chopra as a UN goodwill ambassador over her “support for war” amid heightened tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. In a letter to the UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore, Pakistan’s human rights minister Shireen Mazari accused the 37-year-old actress and former Miss World of publicly endorsing the position of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in Indian-administered Kashmir.”

Maybe some introspection is needed. Social media giants the world over are cracking down on any kind of hate speech and that is the reason accounts have been suspended. Irrespective of the legality or illegality of the Indian action, calling for jihad or war with India is not going to help Pakistan’s cause or image.

Miltestablishment rules with an Iron fist

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan is worse than Purana Pakistan. At least under previous civilian leaders, the Prime Minister had some say. Today, the Miltestablishment has complete control over everything from media to economy to foreign policy and of course domestic politics.

In a recent piece, Agha Haider Raza, a Pakistan-based commentator provides details of the censorship and clampdown on the media. “Khan’s government has been enforcing unprecedented restrictions on the media in Pakistan since coming to power last year.  Under the watchful eye of the hyperactive miltablishment, the current civilian and military rulers have ushered in a new era of media management.  While the civilian government utilizes the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to silence media houses, anchorpersons and journalists by sending them legal notices, the miltablishment utilizes the popular messenger service, WhatsApp, to impose directives.  Military officers have been known to ring up journalists and media owners in the middle of the night, threatening them to alter media content and have it edited to their liking.”

In his piece “Pakistan Being Ruled With an Iron Fist,” Raza, says, “Not only are public rallies and interviews of political leaders blacked out, but leading journalists have been strictly ordered to pre-record their programs to ensure that content not suitable to the regime is broadcasted.  Today, without any legal notice served, a private TV channel was forced to off-air the program of leading journalist Najam Sethi. Journalists have been pursued to a point where they have been pressurized to close down their twitter accounts in order to stop public rebuking of the PTI government.  Newspapers have seen their distribution curtailed after criticizing the government. Recently, a demonstration was held by a union of journalists to protest the clamping down on the media space.  Calls were immediately made to ensure that no cameras would be sent by TV channels cover the event.”

Further, “The censoring and harassment of the media by the current regime Pakistan is rather ironic given the fact that when in the opposition, Imran Khan and the miltablishment fully exploited the media space.  Nawaz Sharif was barely into his third-term as prime minister when Khan besieged Islamabad by sitting atop a container in the red-zone and demanded Sharif’s resignation.  Khan received non-stop live coverage for his 126-day sit-in.  On many occasions, Khan himself has acknowledged that it was due to the electronic and social media in Pakistan, which gave him the political capital to secure the prime minister house.  Unfortunate that once in power, Khan has sought ways to block and shut down social media sites to avoid criticism of his fledgling government.  Pakistan’s military leadership has put all its eggs in the PTI basket and is working tirelessly, at home and abroad, to ensure that Imran Khan faces no impediments.  The top leadership of opposition parties have already been put behind bars and placed in jails on un-proven charges.”

Finally, “In a recent meeting, Imran Khan had an attendance with the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa, Director General ISI, General Faiz Hameed and Director General ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor.  One can only hope that they advised each other to focus more on governing and working towards strengthening the economy rather than having a dictatorial approach towards the media and opposition.  In a now iconic photograph, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf is seen patting his brow as he faced the media in his final days of power. Imran Khan and the top brass would be wise to remember the photograph, realizing the pen will always be mightier than the sword.”

Suspending trade with India: Who will it hurt?

On Monday August 5, India repealed Article 370, an article that gave limited autonomy to Indian controlled Kashmir. Pakistan’s response, aside from resolutions and slogans, was to downgrade bilateral ties and suspend bilateral trade. This would mean a lot if India-Pakistan bilateral trade amounted to much, the reality is different.

As per the graphic below in the last ten years trade between the two countries has primarily comprised Indian exports to Pakistan with minimal Pakistani exports to India. From around INR 88 billion in 2009 they have gone up to INR 178 billion in 2019. 

Trade between India and Pakistan has never taken off because Pakistan has for decades linked trade to resolving the Kashmir dispute. The South Asian region is the least integrated of all regions in the world with intra-regional trade being around 3% compared to 25% in ASEAN (Association for South East Asian Nations) and 50% in North America under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).

As per World Trade Organization (WTO) norms, in 1996 India granted Pakistan MFN (Most Favored Nation) status as it gave to all its neighbors, but Pakistan was never able to reciprocate as in the eyes of the Pakistani security establishment economic (and cultural and people to people) ties would hurt their cause (of India being the permanent enemy).

The last two governments – under PPP and PML-N – tried to give India MFN under the name NDMA (Non-Discriminatory Market Access) but the military viewed that as a red line that could not be crossed. After the February 2019 Pulwama terror attacks India withdrew MFN status and hiked import duties.

If India and Pakistan traded like India and China – where the bilateral trade stands at around USD 85-90 billion annually – then suspension of trade would count for a lot.

As of now, the suspension of almost non-existent trade may make good rhetoric but will not make any difference on the ground.