Is Reforming Pakistan Police a mission impossible?

Mission Impossible
Irfan Hussain, Dawn, September 29, 2012

ASK any Pakistani which government department he fears and distrusts most, and almost invariably, the answer you’ll get is the police.

These custodians of law and order are charged with everything from corruption to cruelty to gross incompetence. As we all know, these accusations are well-founded.

And yet, reviled as it is, our police force is being asked to do the impossible. Denied adequate resources, with virtually no political or public support, and an outdated legal and administrative structure, the police are tasked with tackling vicious terrorist and criminal gangs.

These criminals are not only far better armed and more highly motivated than the police, they are also secure in the knowledge that even if they are arrested, the chances of getting released on bail — or winning an outright acquittal — are very high.

Currently, around 1.4 million cases are pending in courts across the country, including the Supreme Court’s backlog of 20,000. And as we know all too well, the apex court is too busy with urgent political matters to pay much attention to its primary responsibility. After all, hearing routine cases does not attract much media attention.

According to a recent report on police reforms released by the Asia Society, 282 out of 447 terrorism cases, or 63 per cent, tried by anti-terrorism courts in Punjab in 2011 resulted in acquittals.

One reason for this shockingly high rate of acquittals is that in many cases, the initial arrests were made by the ISI or Military Intelligence whose officers carried out the preliminary interrogations.

Almost invariably, confessions thus extracted were later repudiated when the accused were handed over to the police for prosecution. The courts usually deemed the testimony obtained by intelligence agencies to be inadmissible.

Another factor behind this high release rate is the fear witnesses feel in testifying against hardened killers; in many cases, this apprehension is shared by the judges.

The Asia Society report has recommended that the Anti-Terrorism Courts Act of 1997 be amended to allow testimony obtained by intelligence operatives or the army.

Currently, this law is often abused to try cases that have nothing to do with terrorism. After 15 years of escalating acts of terrorism since the 1997 law was enacted, it is time to bring it into line with reality.
Several of the report’s recommendations relate to the inadequate resources at the disposal of our police. If you have the misfortune to visit your local police station, you will see a dilapidated building with battered furniture and yellowing documents.

Often, the officer in charge has to arrange his own supply of stationery. The accommodation provided to the lower ranks is closer to a slum than to government housing.

Working under these conditions, is it a surprise that the police are demoralised? And given their salaries and poor promotion prospects, should we really be shocked over corruption in the service?

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