By I. A. Rehman
08 December 2016
DAY after tomorrow, the people of Pakistan will join the rest of humankind in celebrating Human Rights Day. The government too will indulge in ritualistic rhetoric. An honest approach should persuade it to do some soul-searching, for human rights in Pakistan face serious threats today.
Of late, the most fundamental human right — the right to life, liberty and security of life — has come under increased strain.
Several incidents have exposed as sheer obduracy the government’s rejection of a moratorium on executions until the abolition of death penalty can be rationally discussed. The other day, the Supreme Court acquitted a man who had spent 11 years in jail. He was sentenced to death in December 2005 by a sessions court on the charge of killing a villager. The high court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court rejected the evidence that the trial court had relied upon. Some days earlier, the same court acquitted a man who had spent two decades in prison for a murder in 1992.
More heart-wrenching was the story of two brothers who were acquitted of the murder charge levelled against them in 2002, after they had been hanged in October 2015.
The last mentioned case strengthened the argument for abolition of death penalty on the ground of its being irreversible. It also created serious doubts about the level of efficiency of an administration that hangs two men while their appeal is pending. Were those guilty of this crime — which amounts to murder by negligence if not murder in the name of law — called to account, and have any steps been taken to avoid a recurrence? The argument for action on both counts is irrefutable.
All three cases throw light on a perennial theme — the law’s delays. While attempts have been made to expedite murder trials, especially through the creation of anti-terrorism courts, little seems to have been done to reduce the time murder cases take in the appellate stages. The need for addressing this problem is manifest.
It also seems necessary to remove the obstacles to justice in some murder cases. A fair trial of persons accused of blasphemy or terrorism has become nearly impossible; courts and lawyers both are afraid of doing their duty fearlessly. Further, the two-year period for which military courts were created to try cases of terrorism will end early next month and one hopes that the deviation from the independence and integrity of the judiciary, which is as unhealthy as it is unnecessary, will not be extended.
But the poor interpretation of the law is not the only threat to the right to life. A greater menace is continuation of extra-legal killings. Citizens are killed in so-called police encounters and the government does not bother to fulfil its obligation to hold judicial inquiries into these killings. If at all an inquiry is held, it is done perfunctorily and the findings are usually withheld.
No attempt is made to probe the discovery of dead bodies of victims of enforced disappearance. The latest monthly report of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances states that Nasir of Lyari, Karachi, missing since May 2015, was killed in an encounter. About Pervaiz of Korangi (disappeared in December 2014) the report says, “dead body recovered”. Khan Wahid of Peshawar (disappeared in May 2015) was also reported killed in a police encounter. And “dead body recovered” is the fate of Haris of Rawalpindi (missing since April 2016).
Is the state free from all obligation to explain why and how these people were deprived of their right to life without lawful process?
Regarding the right to liberty, the government must display a strong will to resolve cases of enforced disappearances. It is also time the restraint on freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and extension of the period of detention without trial to 90 days in the name of security, was critically re-examined.
The argument that threats to national security compel even the best governments to clip due process is subject to two caveats. First, there is a growing consensus among jurists that external aggression is the only challenge to national security that can justify curtailment of basic rights. Second, emergency measures must be valid for as short a period as possible. What is happening in Pakistan suggests lack of integrity in invoking emergency provisions.
Some extremely serious forms of denial of liberty have been on the government’s agenda for some time. The conditions of detention in the internment centres created under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation urgently need to be probed. What happened to the Adiala 11, in whose case even the Supreme Court was defied and its effort to extend some relief to the detainees was ultimately frustrated? The complaints that civil society organisations cannot provide aid and relief to the people of Awaran in Balochistan should be denied if they are untrue.
Little needs to be said about the threat to security of life as screaming headlines in newspapers and regular features on TV channels tell of not only an increase in offences against life but also of ever new and more brutal ways of killing people. Equally disturbing is the fact that women are more vulnerable than men, the poor more than the rich and non-Muslim citizens more than Muslims. Effective law-enforcement is needed as the threat to individuals’ security will not disappear by preaching alone.
Above all, the government must realise that its capacity to protect the citizens’ basic rights is being undermined, along with the people’s ability to articulate their grievances, by attacks on freedom of expression and the right to know. Such attacks are not confined to giving sweeping powers to gag agencies under various regulations and attempts to render the Right to Information Bill into an eyewash. Much else is being done overtly and covertly to silence not only dissent but also reporters who suggest alternative means to guard national security.
Bold measures are needed before we can look at the state of human rights with optimism.