Pakistani police stand guard ahead of a Muharram procession in Peshawar on Aug. 7. The police are notorious for inhuman torture and custodial deaths are common in the nation. (Photo: AFP)
Catholic leaders in Pakistan are calling for police reforms and a law to criminalize police brutality pointing to a disproportionately high number of Christians dying in police custody.
The call for reform came after the death of 52-year-old Catholic Bashir Masih in police custody late evening on Sept. 17, hours after he was arrested after being accused of stealing.
Masih is the 17th Christian killed in police stations and jails since 2010, shows the records of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“Police reforms are needed for modern and scientific methods of investigation,” Kashif Aslam, deputy director of the Catholic Bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), said.
Law enforcement agencies “must shift away from inhumane methods of investigation and extraction of confessions through torture, arbitrary arrests, and detention,” he told UCA News.
Rights groups say widespread methods of police torture include beatings with batons and leather straps, stretching and crushing legs with metal rods, sexual violence, prolonged sleep deprivation and causing severe mental anguish such as forcing detainees to watch other people being tortured.
On Aug. 1, the National Assembly passed the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Act, which will for the first time criminalize torture by security forces. However, it is still pending with the Senate Standing Committee on the Interior.
Aslam urged the Senate to expedite passing the bill that would make torture a criminal offense.
The latest torture victim Masih, a father of five, was arrested after being accused of stealing a vehicle on the complaint of Imitiaz Cheema, his former boss and a brick kiln owner.
Masih, from Zafarwali village in Punjab province, worked as a rickshaw driver when he was arrested.
His body was left in a government Hospital in Sambrial area, near the police station where he was questioned.
Sarfraz Arshad, his nephew, told UCA News that a ward boy in the hospital, “on condition of anonymity, reported two policemen and a person in plainclothes leaving the body at the hospital. There was bleeding from the back of his head. His thighs and legs bore injuries. His wrists and shoulders carried wounds as well.”
“My uncle left Cheema about four years ago after he was accused of facilitating the friendship between their housemaid and a workshop owner. Although the Muslim maid testified against it, Cheema held a grudge," Arshad said.
Human rights groups say criminal suspects from marginalized groups remain at particular risk of such abuses.
A report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says that Christian minorities top the victims of police torture and death.
In the past 12 years between 2010 and 2022, at least 21 members of religious minorities died in police stations and jails of which 17 were Christians.
The others include three Hindus and a Sikh.
Three Christians were killed in 2019, two in 2017 and 2015.
Almost all of these Christians were killed in Punjab province where most of Pakistan’s Christians live.
In 2020, a total of 65,467 cases were registered against the police for a variety of transgressions. These included 152 officers receiving penalties for deaths in custody, claims the HRCP report.
“They think it is sawab [spiritual merit] to beat Christians. They wanted us to convert to Islam or testify against our priests and arrest them as well. We all became friends behind bars and were horrified after seeing two people die for want of medical treatment,” said Sunil Shehzad, who suffered police torture.
He was among 41 Christians arrested in 2015 for the murder of two Muslims wrongly suspected of carrying out church bombings in the area of Youhanabad on the outskirts of Lahore. The Catholic rickshaw driver is still haunted by the five years of police torture.
Father Khalid Rashid Asi, director of the NCJP in the Faisalabad diocese, said: “Police must protect and save lives instead of torturing and taking the law into their own hands. Both Church and civil society are angry and tired of thana [police station] culture. Many work as henchmen of politicians and enjoy immunity from the law.”
He said many Muslims have also become victims of police in Punjab where custodial deaths are common. The reforms must focus on their training and police academies should ensure higher education of the candidates, Father Asi added.
“Religious minorities are beaten like animals. Abuses are hurled at Christian prisoners in front of us despite our requests for restraint. It is not a question of the minority but of humanity,” the priest said. “Judicial inquiries into custodial deaths had never been fruitful. We can’t breathe after 75 years of independence, it’s too suffocating in here. People don’t feel alive."