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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Torture stories of Salahuddin & Amir Maseeh: What Police brutality looks like

Cases like Salahuddin and Amir Maseeh keep Pakistan's Police in limelight and all for the wrong reasons. The torture and 'Thana Culture' that has rooted itself deep inside Pakistan's police structure compels citizens to run from Police rather than seek help

Recurrent events of police brutality in Punjab are too painful to be recounted in detail. Even more painful is the realization of the idea that those who are responsible for protecting the life and security of our citizens (i.e. the law enforcement agencies) are precisely the ones that our citizenry has come to fear.

Just in the last few weeks, Salahuddin was tortured to death in police custody. Separately, a video surfaced showing (now deceased) Amjad Ali, along with nine other suspects, being tortured by the police in Gujranwala. A week thereafter, the autopsy report of one Amir Maseeh revealed that he died of torture, while under police custody. Portraying the ‘softer image’ of police, another video shows an ASI, outside the IGP’s office, browbeating an elderly woman. In Hafizabad, a 50-year old laborer, Muhammad Anwar, was severely tortured by the local police.

How has the police culture disintegrated to such a deplorable creed? Has such brutality been a part of our policing culture all along, or has it really become more barbaric in recent years? Either way, is there some systematic reform process that can end this age of police terrorism, or are we past whatever is the point of no return? Importantly, who is responsible for this deplorable state of affairs, and how (if at all) can we bring some measure of humanity and professionalism to the guardians of our security?

People do not follow police directives out of fear of their lives – instead, they listen to a traffic warden, or a constable, or a senior official, out of respect for the law, and respect for the symbol of the State that their uniform represents.

Do the citizens of Pakistan feel safe around law enforcement personnel? Absolutely not. Does the presence of police officials in a particular area, reduce our (constant) fear for life? Certainly not. Does it reinforce the pervasive idea that Pakistanis need to guard themselves against two forms of violence: (1) militants, and (2) law enforcement agencies? Most certainly, it does.

If instances of such as Model Town massacre, Sahiwal killings, Salahuddin’s torture or the escapades of Rao Anwar were one-off secluded events of (terrorism?), there might have been some concession that could be extended to the Police department. However, the frequency and impunity of such events tell the story of State-sponsored brutality in Pakistan. Per a recent report published by the HRCP, over the past four years (from January 2014 to May 2018), as many as 3,345 people have been killed in police encounters. Also, 10 passersby were killed and 53 were injured in these encounters. HRCP’s report further shows that this problem is not restricted to any one province. Interesting, despite all the barbarity of Punjab’s Gullu Butt police, Sindh is on top of the list in killing maximum people in police encounters, from January 2014 to May 2018.

What are the reasons for police brutality? Why is it that the police force is consistently seen as an institution to fear, even by innocent citizens, as opposed to fulfilling its promise of being the protectors of our constitutional right to life and liberty? Why is it that the police forces, across all provinces, with the recent exception of KPK, continue to operate under an antiquated paradigm of law? Why is it that the province of Baluchistan and Sindh continue to function under the Police Act, 1861 (which was introduced by colonial masters to subjugate the local population)?

Why is it that in the province of Punjab, the Police Order, 2002, has still not been implemented, in letter and spirit, over the past fifteen years? Why is it that citizen oversight mechanism, envisioned in the Police Order, 2002 (e.g. Public Safety Commissions and Police Complaint Authority) have still not been constituted, despite express judicial directions from the honorable Lahore High Court? Why is it that successive political governments – from the Musharraf regime to PPP to PML(N) and now, PTI – have consistently refused to implement legal measures that would make police an independent institution that is responsible to the people (as opposed to the political masters)?

Read more: Punjab Police: The tale of Salahuddin might move Govt for reforms

Regardless of how one views the project of peace and justice in Pakistan – from the law and order perspective, the counter-terrorism perspective, or the criminal justice system perspective – the role of civilian law enforcement agencies, and specifically the police, features as the central character of the discourse. And the police apparatus permeates throughout our society, frequently entangled with issues ranging from a domestic scuffle to apprehending world-renowned terrorists and preventing national tragedies.

Over the past several years, experts in the field of law and order, as well as counter-terrorism, have been vociferously arguing that the prevalent police structure in Pakistan is tragically ill-equipped and untrained to fight the growing menace of violence in our society. Frequently, the police is part of the problem, as opposed to being its solution.

The colonial police force, inherited by the State of Pakistan at independence, is structured in a manner that can only perform the role of containing local crowds, and apprehending/investigating the traditional crimes of robbery, dacoity, and personal disputes. In fact, at present, our police force is so entrenched in catering to colonial mob-control practices (and beating up the Salahuddin’s of our country) that it faces institutional inertia towards shifting its focus to modern counter-terrorism techniques.

The recent uptick in (recorded) events of police brutality lays bare the ugly truth about our police force, and its culture. A culture that frequently seems unconcerned with the consequences of their actions. This crisis of ‘Thana culture‘ cannot be fixed through external interventions or legislative measures. The responsibility of fixing its internal culture rests with the police force itself – and in particular with senior officers of the police department.

Read more: Punjab Police ASI behind bars for mistreating old woman

All across the world, the strength and legitimacy of civilian police forces stem from their moral authority. People do not follow police directives out of fear of their lives – instead, they listen to a traffic warden, or a constable, or a senior official, out of respect for the law, and respect for the symbol of the State that their uniform represents.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, this moral authority of the police department has entirely eroded. For now, the people of Pakistan are at war: with the militant, and with a police force that frequently acts in the same manner that militants do. This paradigm is as unsustainable as it is reprehensive. And it is time for conscientious members within the police force to reclaim the promise of their profession and reassert themselves as compassionate guardians of our collective security.

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article was originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.