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
Of late, the most fundamental human right —
the right to life, liberty and security of life — has come under increased
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
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
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
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.