Torture in Police Custody

The following article was originally published in The Daily Times.

The police in Pakistan are set up to ensure order and impose the dictates of power and is not for ensuring enforcement of the law and for providing help to the masses

Countless politicians, lawyers, businessmen, journalists, students, trade unionists, clerks, teachers, writers, and many other citizens of this country have been tortured by the police. Some have had this honor inflicted on them on the streets, others have had it done to them in police stations and others have been tortured in safe houses and other unofficial locations. In some cases, the culprits have been from intelligence agencies and not the police, but the methods and objectives have been similar.

A lawyer friend, who deals with a lot of human rights abuse cases, was recently detailing to me some of the common methods used. Keeping people awake, keeping them standing or sitting in positions that become uncomfortable, using "rollers" on the body, tying people to chairs and beating them in places like underneath the feet where it is harder to leave marks of torture, hanging people from their arms to dislocate shoulders, hanging them upside down and spanking them with special leather lashes; these are the usual methods. Shaving off hair from the head or face is a means of humiliating someone. Removing clothes is another way. And then there are many more that are a lot more gruesome and harmful, and some of them clearly fall under sexual abuse.

Police and intelligence agencies do not always carry out these acts in official buildings. Many unmarked buildings and houses are also used for the purpose. The Islamabad security establishment is known to have many such places, and some in nice neighborhoods too. The same is true for other jurisdictions.

Clearly, none of these techniques are legal and none of them should be acceptable. But, sadly, our larger political system and, more specifically, judicial system not only tolerate them by not punishing them severely enough, they condone and encourage them.

We know that many custodial deaths take place in Pakistan every year; torture, especially in police custody (in fact police remand, in popular parlance, is taken to be license for beating people up) is very common. Plenty of fake encounters also take place routinely. But how many police or intelligence agency officials have been punished for this? How many have been demoted or thrown out of service? How many have been thrown into jail for torture? If there had been some, and if they had been dealt with strongly enough, this issue would not be as blatant and rampant in Pakistan.

There are serious and endemic legal, institutional, economic, social and political problems that are causing the current state of policing in the country. The police force is not properly trained, they do not have resources to do any investigative work, they rely too heavily on testimonials and confessions for making cases, they are being used by the political system (whosoever is in power) to enforce fear and maintain order and their reward/punishment is based on pleasing their masters and not on maintaining laws. The police are only accountable to themselves or to the superiors in the system and definitely not to the people at large in whose name the entire governance mechanism is set up. In fact, I would go out on a limb and state that the police in Pakistan is set up to ensure order and impose the dictates of power and is not for ensuring enforcement of the law and for providing help to the masses.

The problem is cemented by the fact that the very people who are one day at the receiving end of rough or illegal treatment from the police, when in positions of power use the police for the same purpose. The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League) leaders have been roughed up by the police a number of times but the PML-N government in Punjab has used the police in the same manner in the current set up. The PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) and Zardari suffered at the hands of the police but what have they done after coming into power? Even more starkly, pictures of Rana Sanaullah beaten up, shaved and tortured, make the rounds on the internet even today. What has he done to change the system after becoming law minister in Punjab?

The game is probably larger than each of these people individually. The Zardaris, Mians, Chaudhrys, and so on all owe their power to the system and hence even when they come to "power", it is only to serve the system and not to challenge it. They gain from it personally for sure, and so do their cronies and those around them, but changes in the larger system are evidently not the aim.

Unless the larger system is changed, it is hard to see how the current equilibrium can even be disturbed, far less broken. Individual and small administrative, legal or even institutional/governance changes will not be able to change anything. What is needed is

a) a deeper understanding of the issues involved;

b) a broad coalition of the judiciary, elected officials, lawyers, civil society, and citizens to take on the issues in a very public way (almost like a campaign), where

  • transparency is increased;
  • accountability is ensured;
  • resources are invested in places where needed (investigative ability); and
  • the consequences of wrongdoing are severe and assured (for the police).

Only then will we have a chance at changing things. It is time to focus on such issues, but how can such a coalition be put together and torture be made an issue in the public space?

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1 Comment


I appreciate Mr. Bari for bringing this phenomenally dark side of the Pakistani system of (in)justice to light. I would like to add that unless, police powers are devolved to the local county/district level, the door is going to remain open to corruption, abuse and injustice.

So, in a way, the mentioned police system problems are a part of the larger poor quality of governance in this country. Reasons why such poor quality of governance survives (read: thrives) are largely political. The all powerful establishment (A Turkish "deep state," of sorts) finds it easy to "control" things by keeping the Center stronger than the federating units. Whoever makes the government in the Center, goes along with the "rules of the game" established by the "establishment," lest the establishment moves against the in-power political coalition.

For this reason, it is extremely important that citizens in Pakistan focus on forcing the establishment to let the process of the devolution of political and administrative power to take place.

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