ISLAMABAD // Amid ongoing Supreme Court hearings on the torture of criminal suspects, new evidence has emerged that Pakistan's biggest police force continues to abuse and kill prisoners. Many observers claim that politicians eager to be seen as tough on crime are allowing the practice to continue.
The Supreme Court, which had initiated the proceedings on March 5 after independent cable news channels broadcast three public floggings of suspects in Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, had ordered a ban on constitutional grounds. In a subsequent hearing on March 11, the court also ordered the closure of illegal "torture cells" set up by police station chiefs, known as station house officers, in private premises.
"Police officers involved in torture ought to be treated in a tit-for-tat manner," Justice Sair Ali, one of three judges hearing the case, said during the hearing. The court said it would not be satisfied with disciplinary action against low-ranking policemen, and vowed to prosecute senior officials for failing to rein in abusive subordinates. The judges were scathing in their critique of the police practices, observing that rampant abuses were the result of "more than 90 per cent" of officers being ignorant of criminal procedural law.
They also called for an end to political interference in the working of the police. But despite the court hearings, abuses by the Punjab police have continued unabated. On March 9, police paraded the bodies of two criminal suspects allegedly killed in a gun battle around the industrial city of Gujranwala, re-enacting a similarly gruesome spectacle that took place in January last year. Tariq Malik, the city police chief, had sought to justify the parade at a press conference, saying the suspects were wanted in 25 cases of murder, including those of seven policemen and three children, kidnapping for ransom and armed robbery.
Rana Sanaullah Khan, the provincial law minister, responding to media queries, vowed to take action against the policemen involved. But when Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab chief minister with a reputation for a tough stance on violent crime, visited Gujranwala two days later, it was only to announce compensation for a constable killed in the exchange of fire. Appearing in court the same day, Tariq Saleem Dogar, the provincial police chief, sought to deflect the court's censure, saying the news media had blown the incidents of the public flogging of suspects out of proportion, and had in the process demoralised his force.
"We are not given respect. We are headed towards anarchy," Mr Dogar told the court. "We will restore public confidence in us, but give us breathing space." However, the news media has continued to relentlessly expose police abuses. Relations between the Punjab police and the news media soured further on Saturday night, when 20 journalists who had gathered to cover the alleged police beating of a female suspect in Faisalabad were arrested and charged with crimes such as burglary.
On Sunday Dawn, a leading English-language daily newspaper renowned for its restraint, cited the parade of suspects' corpses in Gujranwala as an example of political agendas on crime taking precedence over legal due process. Asha'ar Rehman, editor of the newspaper's edition based in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, wrote: "Is the method of ruling through administrative might alone working? Yes, if the objective is to add morbidity to our already gloomy lives, and if the idea is to trample on the principles of law and civilisation on the path to establishing a rigid police state."
The News, an outspoken English-language newspaper, responded yesterday with a front-page report on national crime trends based on official police statistics that showed the police's harsh tactics were doing nothing to prevent crime. The figures it reported pointed to a crime wave in Punjab province, home to some 90 million of Pakistan's estimated 170 million people, and the country's economic powerhouse.
The number of murders reported in Punjab rose 14 per cent between the financial year 2006-07 and 2008-09 to 11,190, while kidnappings surged by 49 per cent to 23,211 and car theft by 43 per cent to 35,258 incidents, it reported. "The Punjab government has been pathetic in checking crime. It happened despite its claims of good governance and merit-based appointment in the police department," wrote Ansar Abbasi, investigations editor of The News.
Mr Sharif, like many politicians, has a record of appointing a select group of senior police officers to key positions. They include Zulfiqar Ahmed Cheema, the Gujranwala regional police chief, who is the brother of a member of parliament of the Muslim League party, led by Nawaz Sharif, the national opposition leader and brother of Shahbaz Sharif. Police officers in three cities of Punjab told The National that they had little choice but to curry favour with politicians in order to secure postings where they could supplement salaries with income from corruption.
Ahmed Nawaz, who spoke on condition that his rank and location not be disclosed, said: "There is a simple choice: either do their bidding or be sidelined with no hope of posting or promotion for years at a time. In my case, that has meant having to supervise summary executions of 12 violent criminals in the last 13 years. "I have concluded that there is no place for a law-abiding cop in Pakistan."