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New Pakistan law will likely worsen torture by police [Commentary]

Police in Faisalabad, Pakistan's third largest city, tortured more than 1,400 people during a six-year period, according to a report researched and written by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, for Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a non-governmental organization based in Lahore, Pakistan.

The report, which we authored, documents how law enforcement uses its power to inflict pain largely with impunity. Police beat detainees, hang them by their arms or feet for hours on end, force them to witness the torture of others, and strip them naked and parade them in public. Our analysis confirms longstanding concerns voiced by human rights defenders throughout Pakistan about police abuse.

Nevertheless, in July, the Pakistani parliament passed an anti-terrorism law that is likely to make this severe problem even worse. Instead of providing accountability for rampant police abuse, the new anti-terrorism measure, the Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014, gives the police dangerous new powers: It allows security forces to issue "shoot on sight" orders, withhold information about where people are detained and arrest people without a warrant.

These powers, dangerous in the hands of any security force, are being given to police units already proven guilty of hundreds of acts of brutality and torture. Evidence of this abuse is documented in our report, Policing as Torture released in June. JPP and the Lowenstein Clinic investigated 1,867 complaints of police abuse of detained individuals that occurred in Faisalabad, Pakistan, from 2006 to 2012. JPP obtained medical records documenting this police abuse. The examinations were conducted by government physicians, and the records are used in Pakistani courts as evidence to support allegations of police mistreatment, including torture.

The records show that the Faisalabad police tortured at least 1,424 victims during the six-year period. This number captures only formal complaints and likely underestimates the number of people who suffered police abuse. In interviews, victims noted that many detainees, particularly women, chose not to seek an official medical exam, fearing retaliation from the police or because of shame attached to the abuse.

Many of the victims were ordinary citizens, typically poor, who were arrested for mundane reasons — petty theft, traffic violations and disputes with neighbors — and were especially vulnerable to police abuses of authority.

JPP does not have records for other police units in Pakistan, but it is unlikely this violence was limited to Faisalabad.

The police used various methods to abuse people, often torturing a single victim with a combination of techniques. They applied the strappado, hanging victims by their wrists with their arms pulled behind their backs, and left the victims in this position for lengthy periods of time until the victims' limbs grew numb. Using the tactic known as falaka, police officers beat victims on the bottoms of their feet with clubs and other objects, damaging the sensitive nerve endings there and making it painful for the victims to walk or even stand.

The abuse included sexual assault as well, including the rape of at least one child. One pregnant woman was beaten so severely she suffered a miscarriage.

Some individuals lost the ability to work after the abuse, their hands or legs or backs too damaged to resume even simple labor. The report documents the 1,424 instances of abuse in detail.

The Faisalabad police have committed this abuse with impunity. Pakistan's constitution, its domestic laws, and the treaties it has ratified ban these cruel and inhumane practices, yet rarely have police officers been held accountable for the violence they've inflicted upon Pakistani citizens.

Now, the Pakistani Parliament, rather than calling the police to account, has given police more power to mistreat citizens in hidden cells removed from public scrutiny. Parliament justifies the move by saying it is necessary to combat the Taliban and to protect the country — "protection" is the name of the bill. But the protection of Pakistan requires Parliament to revisit the law, rein in the police, and begin making the reforms necessary to ensure citizens do not need to live in fear of the forces meant to protect them.

Kristine Beckerle, Deborah Francois and Babur Khwaja are student legal interns in the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School. Their emails are kristine.beckerle@clinics.yale.edu, ingrid.francois@clinics.yale.edu and babur.khwaja@clinics.yale.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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