South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

THE recently released report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled This Crooked System: Police Abuse and Reform in Pakistan, broadly focuses on two areas: a) police misuse of force including brutal methods of torture and b) weak capacity and support system for police, which is evident in poor budgetary allocations for police stations and excessive working hours without any meaningful residential and welfare support. The report has made exhaustive recommendations to improve police efficiency and the police’s human rights record.

A significant portion of the report focuses on cataloguing allegations of extrajudicial killings against police in Pakistan. It quotes an anonymous police officer confessing that extrajudicial killings of serious criminals such as violent robbers, rapists and paedophiles are considered a ‘necessary evil’ amongst certain groups of police officers.

The anonymous police officer essentially blames weak investigations, problems of evidence collection and witness protection, and the slow response of courts for the failure, generally, to bring brutally violent criminals to justice. The HRW report blames the police leadership for failing to stop the alleged practice of extrajudicial killing without adequately discussing the role of other authorities in failing to perform their responsibility to check the law enforcers.

There is a correlation between a politicised police, police deviance and lack of accountability.

The report is weak in contextualising the problem of police abuse in our broader socio-cultural milieu and in the politics of crime control and justice in the dominant political economy of neo-liberalism. Moreover, conditions peculiar to Pakistan that are faced by its law-enforcement departments, including police and security apparatus, have also not been adequately acknowledged in the HRW report. The document analyses police abuse and reform in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan; however, it does not produce any data to differentiate between these provinces in terms of the prevalence and intensity of police abuse. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, has not been included in the report.

The concept of Power Distance Index (PDI) explained by Geert Hofstede in Cultures and Organisations partially helps in understanding the problem of use of torture and its variants by police. PDI describes the dependence of the weaker sections of society on the powerful. It explains the degree to which the weaker sections of society “expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”. In Sindh, especially in the rural areas, and Punjab, PDI — the gap between the powerful and the weak sections of the society — is quite wide. Likewise the PDI between the police and weaker sections of society in these two provinces is massive. It is these vulnerable groups — the ‘police property’, overly dependent on the powerful, lacking the means to protect themselves against human rights abuses — that often bear the brunt of policing.

It is also crucial to understand the politics of crime control, and law and order in the broader context of the neo-liberal political economy. Neo-liberalism and its cultural and social concomitants of inequality, heightened aspirations and unequal opportunities have a strong correlation with higher and seriously violent crimes, and the consequent punitive and oppressive trends in crime control.

Increasing demands on the criminal justice system in Pakistan have not been met with parallel development of capacity building of police, prosecution and courts. Weak investigations and prosecutions, unavailability of witnesses for fear of reprisal, overloaded courts and, consequently, the gradual unravelling of the justice system coupled with rising crime, fear of crime and political and public pressure on police to be tough on criminals, have led to increasingly harsh crime-control tactics.

The police, however, certainly cannot be allowed to act as judge and executioner. The role of the police is to investigate, identify suspects, collect evidence against them and make arrests where required.

It is unfortunate that the response of the authorities and the media towards the problems of police torture leaves a lot to be desired. At times it is treated as the elephant in the room while at other times, according to the HRW report, it allegedly receives tacit approval. Yes, there are instances where police officers are held accountable by the courts and even booked in cases of murder but the general perception amongst the citizens about police accountability vis-à-vis torture remains very poor.

The report also highlights the correlation between a politicised police, police deviance and lack of accountability. It is apparent that a politicised police, weak controls and human rights abuses go hand in hand. It is important to align the police with the law rather than the government. Sadly, the police, throughout our history, have remained aligned to the regime and not to the law.

Lack of effective internalised or informal controls and low prospects of external sanctions facilitate police abuse. Unfortunately these internal organisational and external oversight controls, which could act as a major deterrent, are weak. That encourages deviant police officers to break the law in pursuit of their flawed approach towards crime control and justice.

The situation in the neighbouring countries is equally disturbing. HRW, in its earlier reports, has also documented serious human rights violations including allegations of extrajudicial killings against Bangladeshi and Indian police units. The operations of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, which was formed in 2004, of the Mumbai police versus organised syndicates in the 1990s, and of the Punjab (Indian) police against the Sikh separatists in the 1980s and 1990s are all marred by serious allegations of extrajudicial killings. In 2013, Surjit Singh, a police officer in Punjab, admitted to having killed 83 people, including several in extrajudicial killings on orders from his superiors to target Sikh separatists.

In order to improve respect for human rights among police in Pakistan, in addition to training, effective internal and external accountability, and de-politicisation of the force, it is important to help the police officers believe they can perform their job effectively within the rules. To achieve that, it is crucial to build the capacity of police investigators. It is equally important to support them with broader reforms in the criminal justice system such as adequate financial support, increasing the number of judges, efficient disposal of cases, and witness protection programmes while simultaneously reducing the disconnect amongst different actors in the criminal justice system.

Updated On: October 4th, 2016