Pakistan is moving to make torture a criminal offense, an important step in stemming widespread abuses by the police.
A bill submitted to parliament this week – The Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Act 2019 – would make torture by police a criminal offense for the first time.
While Pakistan’s constitution prohibits the use of torture for extracting evidence, domestic law currently does not actually criminalize torture. Pakistan is party to international treaties that prohibit the use of torture and other ill-treatment, notably the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
In recent months, several incidents of torture and custodial death have spotlighted the pervasive culture of abuse. On September 1, Salahuddin Ayubi, arrested for theft, died in police custody. His family said he had a mental health condition. A forensic report confirmed that he had been severely beaten. In August, the Punjab anti-corruption department discovered a cell run by police officers in Lahore where suspects were kept in secret detention and tortured. The government has ordered inquiries into both incidents.
Human Rights Watch has documented the Pakistani police’s widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment, particularly during criminal investigations. Those from marginalized groups are at particular risk of abuse. Torture is typically used to obtain confessions and other information from suspects, or to extract bribes from those arbitrarily detained. Officials claim the police resort to physical force because they are not trained in sophisticated methods of investigation and forensic analysis.
In April, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairperson of the National Assembly’s committee on human rights, promised to introduce legislation to eliminate “the barbaric practice of torture.” On October 10, Dr. Shireen Mazari, the minister for human rights, acknowledged the need to put an end to the practice of torture and custodial deaths.
Pakistan needs to reform its police force to end abuse and protect detainees. This proposed law could be an important first step.