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Punjab police use stun batons to enforce Covid-19 rules

Rights commission claims the use of electric shocks against people not wearing masks amounts to torture

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Punjab police use stun batons to enforce Covid-19 rules

A health official wearing protective gear holds samples taken from men at a drive-through screening and testing facility for Covid-19 in Islamabad on June 9. (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

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Civil society activists are pushing for an investigation into Punjab police officers zapping people who break Covid-19 rules with stun batons.

The Civil Defense District Administration and police personnel in Faisalabad this week started using electric shock sticks at a major crossroads in a campaign to enforce coronavirus standard operating procedures (SOPs). The victims include motorcyclists, auto rickshaw drivers and pedestrians. Many received electric shocks for not wearing masks.

Wearing a mask has been made compulsory in Pakistan as more than Covid-19-related 100 deaths were recorded on June 9 for the first time since the imposition of a partial lockdown. As of June 10, virus cases had surged to 113,702 with 2,255 deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in a June 7 letter to Punjab Health Minister Yasmin Rashid recommended that Pakistan impose an "intermittent lockdown" to curb the spread of Covid-19, noting that the country doesn't meet any conditions for lifting restrictions.

"The positivity rate is high, the surveillance system is weak, there is limited capacity to provide for critical patients and the population is not ready to adapt to change in behavior," said Dr. Palitha Mahipala, WHO country head for Pakistan.

In a statement issued on June 9, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said the use of stun batons to enforce Covid-19 SOPs amounts to torture.

“This is in flagrant violation of both Article 14 of the constitution of Pakistan and the UN Convention Against Torture, to which Pakistan is a state party. The use of stun batons and similar implements clearly carries state endorsement if the police have been equipped with them, even though there is no sanction for this in Pakistani law,” the HRCP stated.

“The practice amounts to torture and the disproportionate use of force — both prohibited under international human rights instruments. Nor is this the first time that law enforcement agencies have used regressive measures to enforce Covid-19-related SOPs: it was common to hear of people being made to assume humiliating positions if suspected of violating the earlier lockdown.”

The commission strongly urged the Punjab government and Punjab police to investigate the matter.

“The prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is absolute and cannot be justified under any circumstances — including the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis must not be tackled at the expense of human rights — this is not an either/or situation,” concluded the statement endorsed by the president of the World Organisation Against Torture.

Father Abid Tanveer, vicar general of Faisalabad Diocese, also condemned the “blatant” violation of human rights.

“The officials have forgotten humanity. The authorities started with puncturing motorcycle tires and have now resorted to extreme measures. The malls and markets remain crowded since the prime minister refused to shut down mosques during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan and eased restrictions ahead of the Eid-al Fitr holiday last month,” he told UCA News.

Father Zafar Iqbal, parish priest the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Faisalabad, fears using stun batons against members of the public can add to the hysteria.

“Motorcycles are used by middle class citizens and citizens of lower-income backgrounds who are already facing an economic crisis. Using stun batons on patients or people with health issues can be fatal. Public servants should instead ensure availability of face masks, which are still short in medical stores or being sold on the black market at higher prices,” he said.

Meanwhile, Faisalabad deputy commissioner Muhammad Ali has suspended four employees of the Civil Defense and ordered a detailed report.

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