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Police torture still not a crime in Pakistan

Recent viral videos on social media highlight police brutality and a lack of accountability

Police torture still not a crime in Pakistan

Christians protest the arrest of Raja Walter in Youhanabad, Lahore, on June 23. (Photo: Raja Walter)

Raja Walter was organizing free evening meals for the poor when three policemen raided the distribution last month.

“Men and women were separated in queues as usual. The pastor had just begun the prayer before eating when policemen shouted at us to stop. We were abused and asked to pack the food. I begged them to cooperate until the prayer ended but they kicked the loudspeaker and dragged it on their motorcycle,” Walter told UCA News.

Soon a mob of more than 100 surrounded the policemen on June 23, blocking their exit from Youhanabad, a predominantly Christian district of Lahore. “This is injustice” and “How will we eat?” they cried.

“Everybody was startled. People started taking videos with their phones and the mob was growing bigger. My blood pressure became unstable with suffocation. I fainted trying to control them,” said Walter.

Following Walter's arrest, religiously charged protesters later gathered at the police station near Youhanabad. The Christians accused policemen of blasphemy under section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

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Walter was threatened with charges of terrorism and misuse of a loudspeaker under Punjab’s sound system law that prohibits the installation of more than one sound-enhancing gadget at a place of worship. He was released the same night after both parties signed a sulah nama, a non-binding written settlement.

The burger shop owner has been distributing free food among daily wagers and widows since March when the government imposed a national lockdown to contain soaring coronavirus cases. Some 58 healthcare providers, including 42 doctors, have lost their lives due to Covid-19 in Pakistan, where 4,473 deaths have been reported from 217,809 cases.

VIP Food Point is located near one of two churches attacked by suicide bombers in 2015, killing 15 Christians including women and children. Some 42 Christians were jailed for lynching two suspected terrorists in riots after the attacks. They were acquitted in January after a deal to pay "blood money" to the victims' families.

The distribution of free food has been resumed with the recitation of Christian prayer. 

“I was slapped along with the pastor but our food service will continue with standard operating procedures until the lockdown ends. Both politicians and religious leaders have joined us in handing out cooked meals among Muslims and Christians,” said Walter, referring to the visit of Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore in April.

Father Francis Gulzar, vicar general of Lahore Archdiocese, refused to comment on the police raid. “I do not want to become part of this politics,” he said. 

As social media users condemned police brutality in Lahore, another video of a police station in Peshawar city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province went viral, sparking protests in different cities of the northern province last month. Two police stations were also attacked.

The video, reportedly shared by police officers on June 24, showed Amir Tehkali being pushed, paraded naked and being asked to move in a circle inside a police station. Tehkali was arrested and assaulted after a video of him mocking police officials went viral on social media. 

Following a judicial inquiry, five police officials were arrested and a case was lodged against them.

The reaction

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) recorded 20 cases of custodial torture last year. The Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill 2020, tabled in February this year, is still pending before a Senate committee.

In early June, a 14-year-old boy was picked up by police in Dera Ismail Khan and detained overnight for posting a cartoon he drew of a checkpoint.

“These are only those cases that reach public attention through the media. Numerous other cases still go unreported. Unfortunately, this is yet another glimpse of the policing culture in Pakistan that manifests itself in the form of unlawful detention, torture, custodial death and rape, compounded by the lack of accountability,” said the HRCP in a statement.

“From custodial deaths to illegal detentions, we have witnessed unlawful use of force followed by ad hoc administrative actions to assuage public outcry, only to let it be forgotten. This is an opportunity to finally pass a comprehensive law that addresses all aspects of custodial torture, including gender-based violence used exclusively against female victims. Parliament must uphold its duty to protect the right of the very citizens who elected it. Torture is criminal, make it a crime.”

Father Nasir William, director of the Commission for Social Communications in Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, supported the demand.

“The policy of revenge by the police department will cause further frustration in society. Raiding philanthropists creates a bad image of the country,” he said.

“Whether he is getting outside funding or not, the lay Catholic in Lahore is doing a good job. This is something the Church should have done. The jobless should be provided charity on their doorsteps.”

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