FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 03

Custodial deaths in the Punjab

The Punjab government has decided to amend laws and make new standard operating procedures (SOPs) to prevent deaths in custody after the police allegedly killed three people in as many days. Calls for police reforms are growing after the killing of Muhammad Salahuddin, who was mentally challenged, after he was caught stealing cards from an ATM machine.

There is no doubt that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) recruited a large number of criminals to the Punjab police, but the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government cannot blame it now. The Punjab police are considered the worst after the Sindh police in the country as recruitment to both forces were made on political grounds in the past. The Punjab police are also notorious for fake encounters and have killed hundreds of people in the last few decades, on instructions of high-ranking civilians and police officers. At a time, killing hardened criminals through the police was a policy of the PML-N government.

A death in police custody is highly deplorable but the killing of a person, with mental illness, is even more gruesome. People were outraged when a horrifying video appeared on social media which showed officials from the Punjab police beating and humiliating Salahuddin. In the video, two police officers were seen hitting him and using abusive language to intimidate him. He appeared to be in excruciating pain. The police officials also asked him to stick out his tongue for their amusement, apparently oblivious to his mental and physical condition. Earlier, Salahuddin’s video had gone viral after he was caught stealing from an ATM in Faisalabad and then sticking his tongue out at the camera.

The recent deaths have embarrassed the Punjab government, which had promised to reform the police after coming to power. Over a year has passed but the police remain the same. Even the appointment of an honest and strict police officer as Inspector General (IG) of the Punjab police has not worked. IG Arif Nawaz, in an effort to improve conditions at police stations, had ordered their monitoring through closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, but his subordinates are not interested in transforming themselves. In a warning letter to senior police officials, he expressed extreme displeasure over deaths in police custody. He was also dismayed at the arbitrary discontinuation of the monitoring of police stations through CCTV cameras by senior police officials.

The custodial death of the mentally challenged person also attracted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s attention and he summoned Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar to his office. PM Imran Khan expressed concern over the killings and ordered expediting the process of police reforms. However, it appears the Punjab police are almost impossible to reform. One incident of grave violations has occurred after the other in recent times but high-up of the police and the federal and Punjab governments become quiet after raising some noises and warnings of “serious consequences.”

As Salahuddin died in police custody in Rahim Yar Khan, a young man, identified as Amir Masih was allegedly killed by the Lahore police. Many torture marks were found on his body. In a footage shown by news channels, two policemen were seen dragging him into a hospital. Later, the policemen were seen bringing him out of the hospital in a wheelchair and bundling him into a cab. Earlier, a middle-aged Amjad Ali had died at a Lahore hospital after alleged torture by the Gujjarpura police. He was admitted to hospital after he had been recovered along with eight others from an illegal police torture cell. Lahore police high-ups claimed he had died of cardiac arrest.

In January this year, the Punjab police killed four people, including parents and their teenage daughter, in Sahiwal, which created uproar in the country. The incident, known as the Sahiwal tragedy, had sent shock waves across the country as one of the surviving children, who were witness to the killings, denied the official version in a video that went viral on social media.

The Punjab police, after decades-long policy of killings in fake encounters, have reached a point where they are impossible to rein in. According to police data, at least 1,325 people were shot dead in encounters, most of them fake, in the province from 2014 to 2017. The suspects were killed by police after investigations, which lasted for weeks and months. Former Malir SSP Rao Anwar also earned a bad name in fake encounters.

Experts say the Punjab police need to change their mindset to stop torture and extrajudicial killings of suspects. Police high-ups should themselves launch reforms among the force, especially low-ranking officers, who are usually involved in torture and killing of accused in custody. On the other hand, the government has delayed reforms unnecessarily, which encouraged the police to continue with its old ways. Experts say had the police officials involved in the killings of citizens in Sahiwal been punished, the recent incidents of the custodial killings would not have happened.

The PTI wanted to replicate the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police model in the Punjab after a huge success in the province during its 2013-2018 rule. In its initial days in power, the government also formed a reform body, with Nasir Durrani its head, to change Punjab police culture. After he quit his job, allegedly over interference by the ruling elite, the reform process stopped and the government never made a serious effort to restart it.

The recent custodial deaths have once again highlighted the necessity of police reforms. The Punjab police are governed by the Police Order, 2002 (amended in 2013), which stipulates up to five-year imprisonment for officers found guilty of inflicting “torture and violence to any person” in their custody. However, the law largely remains ineffective as the police themselves are assigned inquiries into incidents of torture and deaths in custody and they exonerate officials of their own force. The government will have to form an independent authority to hold inquiries and punish police officials involved in the incidents.

The PTI government had to sack at least 8,000 officials of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police to purge them of corruption and stop them from taking the law into their own hands. It will have to terminate at least 20,000 officials to reform the Punjab police. Sceptics say Pakistan’s economy can overtake the US and China, but the Punjab police would not change.