First appeared on DAWN blog
They kept us for one month in the police station. There were about 25 to 30 people in the lockup. When there were more, we couldn’t lie down. Whenever it rained, water use to seep in from the roof. There were no windows. I was beaten all over my body, and the investigating officer demanded Rs. 50,000 to release me.”
Taher Hassan was 15 years old at the time of his arrest, and when he shared horrific stories of torture, abuse, and prolonged detention with the Human Rights Watch team surveying the condition of inmates in Pakistan.
According to the April 2009 statistics available at the Inspectorate of Prisons, there are currently 1,662 children in detention all across the county; 123 have been convicted while 1,539 are still awaiting trial. Violating the 2008 ruling of the Federal Shariah Court, 110 of the 123 convicted have been awarded rigorous imprisonment. Blatant violations of children’s right to education, health and protection under legal detention have been well documented by various rights organisations.
The case of Zeeshan Budd is a staunch reminder of the kind of abuse faced by inmates in detention. Zeeshan, a 17-year-old, was picked up on the evening of January 17, 2008, in the jurisdiction of Shah Lateef Town in Punjab. He was not informed of the charges against him, his family was not told of his arrest that night, and he was neither sent to a remand home nor appointed a probation officer, which is required under Pakistan’s Juvenile Justice System Ordinance. Instead, he was stripped at the police station, beaten and interrogated, during which time three officers raped him. A video of the rape was recorded on an officer’s mobile phone.
When the police contacted the family the next day, Zeeshan’s grandmother Kulsoom Akhter agreed to pay Rs. 50,000, half the requested bribe demanded by the officers to release Zeeshan. However, even after the payment was made, the boy was kept in detention, sent to court, and the officers distributed parts of the video of his rape to internet cafes close to the boy’s family’s home.
Such gruesome treatment is not limited to juveniles alone. Another survey suggests that in the Punjab alone nearly 78 per cent of women prisoners complained of maltreatment in police custody and 72 per cent complained of sexual abuse. Most of these women become pregnant and deliver in the absence of pre- and post-natal care. Sexual abuse has also resulted in cases of HIV transmission and the spread of other STDs for which these prisoners are never treated.
A recent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report expresses concern over deteriorating conditions in Pakistani jails. According to the report, 4,651 prisoners were housed in Lahore camp jail, which has a capacity for 1,050 individuals. Indeed, overcrowding remains one of the most crucial issues faced by inmates in jails across the country. As a result, prisoners are required to sleep on the floor and unhygienic conditions give rise to infectious disease like TB and scabies.
Besides suffering the agony of living in extremely cramped quarters, prisoners charged with minor crimes are kept in the same quarters as hardened outlaws. Ultimately, most of them leave embittered by their experiences and armed with the knowledge needed to begin a career in the crime world.
Still, we see little or no outcry regarding the inhumane treatment of inmates within our country. I sense sheer hypocrisy when Pakistanis turn out on the roads to protest against torture in Bargram and Gitmo. The fact is, torture in custody in Pakistan is extremely common, and innocent persons are, at times, forced to admit to crimes they never committed. The majority is confined to prison cells, awaiting trial for years, in some cases without their families even being informed of their arrest or imprisonment.
Introspection is therefore important before we speak up against torture and illegal detentions elsewhere in the world. Despite rulings by the Federal Shariah Court in August last year, little effort has been made to recognise the fundamental rights of prisoners. The authorities need to take substantial steps to turn our jails into reform centres, rather than letting them fester as breeding grounds for criminals. Across the world, libraries, schools, skill workshops, and vocational training courses are available in prisons, which are treated more as correctional and reform centres than torture cells. Ironically, most of these facilities available at limited prisons in Pakistan aren’t facilitated by the state, and are instead run by voluntary organisations.
Ali Abbas Zaidi, founder of one of the largest youth organisations in Pakistan, is currently working on one such project. “Thousands of children are languishing in jails throughout Pakistan, sometimes guilty of being used by criminals as hands for minor robberies, and sometimes being born to mothers who are serving sentences,” says Zaidi. “Either way, they are time-bombs and we have to own them as children of our society. If the government is unable to stop sexual abuse and give them educational facilities, we as civil society should come forward in saving these time-bombs from exploding.” With this mission further in place, Zaidi is working towards establishing an educational facility for children at Kot Lakpat jail, Lahore, which will be replicated in other jails across the country if it succeeds.
But much more must be done. The sexual abuse, torture, and murders that occur in police custody in Pakistan must be stopped. A conscientious sweep of the policing system is long overdue. Individuals in police custody often emerge brutally scarred – emotionally and physically – and the government must determine how the situation has worsened so that steps can be taken to rectify the problem. Moreover, a nationwide clarification of acceptable interrogation methods is necessary. And once convicted, for starters, inmates should be provided with basic medical, psychiatric, and skill-development facilities. It is only by reforming our prisons that we can begin to address the prevalence of crime in Pakistani society.