In January 2018, 27-year-old Naqeebullah Mehsud was murdered by the police in an ‘encounter’ in Karachi. The following year, on January 19, 2019, the Punjab Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) murdered a couple, their 13-year-old daughter and their neighbor after opening fire on their car in Sahiwal.
This month alone, Usama Satti and Sultan Nazir were shot dead by law-enforcement personnel in Islamabad and Karachi respectively. These are not isolated incidents but reflect the larger and more routine pattern of police brutality and excessive use of force on the part of law-enforcement agencies (LEAs).
In 2017, the Human Rights Committee (HRC), while examining Pakistan’s initial report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) observed, at paragraph 19: “The Committee is concerned by the high incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly perpetrated by the police and military and security forces”. The HRC noted that Pakistan should “ensure that all allegations of… extrajudicial killings are promptly and thoroughly investigated; all perpetrators are prosecuted and punished, with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crimes”.
In PLD 2020 SC 310, the Honourable Supreme Court noted, at paragraph 3: “We may emphasize that it is the constitutional right of the people that their life and properties are saved and protected by the state and such state functionaries include the police officials”. Why is there then this culture of impunity that prevails when it comes to the quest for accountability in the context of extrajudicial executions?
In the last many decades of our existence, Pakistan has never sincerely attempted to alter its policing model. Colonial laws remain in place, granting widespread and arbitrary authority to law-enforcement personnel. Let us take a very basic example to illustrate the problem. A crime is committed against me and I wish to register a First Information Report (FIR) so I approach the relevant police station. Despite the existence of Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC), it is highly likely that the police will resist registration of the FIR unless I am politically or otherwise influentially connected, or unless I offer a bribe.
In fact, Transparency International’s 2016 Global Corruption Barometer survey for countries in the Asia Pacific region revealed that around 70 percent of Pakistanis who came into contact with the police or the courts had to pay bribes. This is just standard operating procedure in most police stations, which reflects the problem of inadequate resources being allocated here.
In a 2020 research study conducted by Nadeem Malik and Tariq Abbas Qureshi, it was highlighted: “the average cost of living is extremely high… it, therefore, becomes difficult even for senior police officers to make both ends meet”. What we expect from our police force is for them to perform with inadequate pay, insufficient training and no health or other benefits for their service to the nation. In the 2020 study, it was stated: “the police officers are supposed to be on duty for 16-18 hours without any extra remuneration, seven days a week, and there are no regular duty rosters in operation”. A junior officer interviewed during the study disclosed: “the prolonged work hours and low salaries cause enormous stress and depression among officers”. It is almost as though we forget law-enforcement personnel are also living, breathing human beings with emotions, trauma and resentment that build up within them.
Even in the federal capital, one need only drive around post 6pm to see several police officials standing on the road, relying on the mercy of citizens to get a ride. This is the state of the police in the federal Capital: that there isn’t even adequate transport provided to them after they are put on 16-hour shifts. Resentment builds up within the force, especially when LEAs compare resource allocation between their departments, on the one hand, and other such forces, on the other.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed several police officers who “openly admitted to the practice of false or faked ‘encounter killings’, in which police stage an armed exchange to kill an individual already in custody”. HRW noted, in its exchanges with law-enforcement personnel, “that abuses can often be explained, if not justified, by the considerable pressures placed upon them”. Among the problems police officials listed were “organizational shortcomings, inadequate training and resources, lack of requisite funds, poor working conditions, and lack of coordination with other law-enforcement agencies”.
We have seen cries for help from our own LEAs to the state for the last many decades but no one seems to be willing to listen. That innocent lives will continue to be lost is just simply accepted because our state and society have become so desensitized to violence and death. In PLD 1997 Lahore 135, the Honourable Lahore High Court stated, at paragraph 10: “extrajudicial killing carried out by the police is highly condemnable because it adversely affects faith in the system. It is not only violative of law but also a brutal and inhumane act on the part of the police. Such incidents also tend to shake the legal framework of our society which in turn loses its trust in the judicial system. Under the law, police is [sic] to arrest the criminals and to investigate the crime but they cannot exceed their limits”.
This is exactly where we are today: living in a system where there is absolutely no guarantee for life and security, and where the same is simply brushed off as unfortunate or condemnable by those in the corridors of power. Police reform is nowhere on the agenda and even where it has been half-heartedly put on the agenda, the 24 commissions that have been established to make recommendations in this regard have achieved very little. This reflects a general and persistent state of apathy towards the problem, which cannot go on in this way.
Four major recommendations can be made vis-a-vis police reform. First, improved training and resource allocation to LEAs. Second, a comprehensive review of all colonial laws. Third, securing the independence of LEAs by ensuring non-interference by other agencies and politicians in their functioning. Fourth, resolving issues of police corruption, incompetence and inefficiency by establishing an independent police commission, modeled along the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which operates in England and Wales.
The writer is founding partner of Mazari-Hazir Advocates & Legal Consultants.
Email: imaanmazarihazir@ gmail.com