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The culture of police torture in Pakistan

Haroon Janjua Gujranwala
September 18, 2019

Recent cases of custodial deaths have angered the Pakistani people, who are demanding immediate justice for the victims. But reforming the "police torture culture" would be a mammoth task. Haroon Janjua reports.

Body of Salahuddin Ayubi, who was allegedly tortured to death by Pakistani police
Image: Privat

Muhammad Afzaal, an elderly man with a long white beard, is sitting among a group of mourners in his home in the Gorali village of Punjab's Gujranwala district, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of the Pakistani capital Islamabad. All these people are mourning the death of Salahuddin Ayubi, Afzaal's mentally disabled son, who was allegedly tortured to death in police custody.

60-year-old Afzaal tells DW he learnt about the news of his son's arrest on August 30 after a local news channel showed Ayubi breaking into a bank's ATM counter. A video of Ayubi mocking the CCTV camera went viral on social media. Later, police officials arrested the 27-year-old.

"They brutally murdered my son," Afzaal said.

"I saw the torture marks on my son's body. His right arm was burnt, either with hot water or electric shocks. There were bruises on his entire body," Afzaal said.

Punjab police denied torturing Ayubi and said he died a natural death. The authorities said he was behaving like a "mad person" and fell unconscious when they brought him to hospital.

"We condemn any form of violence and torture. It could be an individual act. We are investigating whether a police official was responsible for Ayubi's death," Inam Ghani, a spokesman for Punjab police, told DW.

"To avoid such acts in the future, we are introducing changes to make the police force more people-friendly and helpful," Ghani added.

A forensic report on Tuesday confirmed that Ayubi died of physical and mental torture.

Deaths in police custody

There is no credible data available on custodial deaths in Pakistan, but human rights groups point to a spike in police torture cases. They say that the "culture" of police torture is more prevalent in Pakistan's most populous Punjab province than in other parts of the country.

Ayubi's death has put a spotlight on the issue of custodial deaths in the South Asian nation.

"Ayubi's death in custody is not the first case of police torture. Custodial torture is actually a routine in Pakistan," Usama Khawar, a lawyer hired by Afzaal, told DW.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that members of marginalized communities are particularly at risk of police abuse.

"A lack of accountability in police excesses has fostered a culture of impunity. Pakistani police are often under-resourced and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern world. The police force needs to be modernized, and police officials involved in custodial deaths and other rights violations should be held accountable through a transparent and efficient mechanism," Saroop Ijaz, a Pakistan researcher for HRW, told DW.

Rights activists say that Pakistan lacks comprehensive legislation to prevent and criminalize police torture. Although the Police Order 2002 prohibits torture and imposes a penalty on police officials committing torture, most police officials consider themselves above the law. There is a lack of accountability in the police force. 

"Police officials involved in torture should be brought to justice, but unfortunately not a single police official in confirmed torture cases was held accountable for his actions. This shows that we don't have independent district and provincial monitoring bodies that can investigate torture allegations," Sarah Belal, the executive director of Justice Project Pakistan, told DW.

Read more: Uproar in Pakistan over 'torture and sexual abuse' of Christian youths

Need for police reforms

Earlier this year, police officials killed several members of the same family in Punjab's Sahiwal town on terrorism suspicion. Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the killings and promised to initiate police reforms to avoid torture and extrajudicial killings.

"I will review the entire structure of Punjab police and start process of reforming it," Khan said in January.

But so far, no action has been taken in this regard.

Experts say that police reforms would be a long-term measure; for the short term, it is vital to pass a law to criminalize all kinds of torture, institute legal safeguards for the protection of witnesses and victims of torture, and form independent bodies to investigate torture cases.

"There is definitely a need to reform police that consider torture an 'effective method' to curb crime," underlined Belal. "Trainings, of course, can be an effective medium to sensitize police officials and make them understand that the job of police is to protect citizens and not control them," she added.

Police spokesperson Ghani says that people will soon "see positive changes in police," although to reform the entire policing system would not be easy.

Christians living in fear in Pakistan

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon