RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Death Row Convicts Bear Brunt of Torture

  • by Zofeen Ebrahim (karachi, pakistan)
  • Inter Press Service

This is according to rights groups that are already up in arms over how torture seems to have become far too common in Pakistani prisons.

In September, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HCRP) discovered that three inmates in a Punjabi jail had developed renal ailments after being tortured by jail staff. Two of them are on death row.

'Those on death row are considered expendable relative to the fact that they are already condemned,' says Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistan-born director at the human rights monitor Amnesty International.

There is tacit tolerance of the torture for those facing capital punishment. Explaining the prevailing attitude, rights campaigner Zohra Yusuf says, 'They (death row inmates) are guilty of heinous crimes and so do not deserve a humane treatment.'

Indeed, the treatment of prisoners is itself abhorrent, with the ways of torturing them including foot whipping with a cane or rod, prying out of fingernails, rubbing chili into eyes, and beatings with the victim stripped and hung upside down.

Mirza Tahir Hussain, a British national who spent nearly two decades on death row in Pakistan before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2006, told IPS that the most popular torture methods of Pakistani jailers are the ‘Panja’ and the ‘Jahaz’.

'In ‘Panja’,' he said, 'the victim is held by both his arms and slapped on the neck and head, which leaves him severely shocked and unconscious. In ‘Jahaz’, the victim is made to lie face down. He is held and stretched by four guards (who) lift him off the ground and whip him with a terrible invention called ‘chitter’ (a kind of leather belt) on the back and bottom.' He added: 'And this is just the tip of the iceberg.'

In the recent Punjab case, the three inmates who were tortured were first beaten severely before they were stripped naked. Then with their private parts taped so that they could not urinate, they were forced to drink four litres of water each and administered injections that made them want to relieve themselves.

According to the HCRP, the tape was not removed off the inmates’ private parts until four hours later.

It also says that as many as 20 prisoners were actually beaten up after the jail staff searching for mobile phones in the cells came up empty. But the three inmates, in particular, received more abuse.

Pakistan is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Activists also point to Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which states, 'No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.'

'It does provide the basis for litigation,' says Zakaria, referring to the charter. 'The only obstacle would be an immunity clause that could apply to police officers acting in their investigative capacity, although I have been unable to find one myself.'

But the constitution is apparently just the ideal. According to human rights activist I A Rehman, most prisoners in this country are beaten up almost as soon as they step into the jail. 'They cannot look the jail staff in the eyes,' he says. 'The prison staff enjoy wide powers to punish the prisoners.'

Rights groups say part of the problem is that there is no system through which prisoners or their relatives could report abuse by jail personnel.

A jail superintendent in Sindh province refutes this, though, saying, 'In Sindh, since a year now, prisons are visited every day by a judicial magistrate and by a district court judge once a week. The magistrate meets every person individually and in private. So a prisoner can lodge a complaint and many do.'

The superintendent asserts, however, that not all the complaints are justified and hints prisoners need 'disciplining' because they tend to turn violent.

'There have been riots, too, and prisoners have to be dealt with more firmly,' he adds.

The HRCP itself says that the incidence of jail riots have increased in recent years — often as protests against the excesses of jail staff.

Hussain, the British convict who was released shortly after the commutation of his sentence, has theorised that the idea behind the abuse is to cause 'maximum verbal, physical, and mental torture to scare the victim and to make him an example to the rest of the inmates'.

He also said, 'Someone on death row can become a target of severe torture by the prison authorities — from lowest to highest ranks — without even the slightest provocation and this may continue over a long period of time.'

On average, death row inmates in Pakistan spend 10 years in incarceration before they are executed, usually by hanging. This can also be much lengthier, as in the case of Hussain who spent 18 years behind bars.

Estimates by rights groups put the current number of death row inmates in Pakistan at about 7,400 — one-third of the global total and the largest in the world.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) has also noted that 63 years ago, only 'murder and treason' carried the death penalty in Pakistan.

Today, it said, 27 crimes carry the capital punishment, 'including blasphemy, stripping a woman in public, terrorist acts, sabotage of sensitive institutions, sabotage of railways, attacks on law enforcement personnel, spreading hate against the armed forces, sedition, (and) cybercrimes'.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service