In late December, a University Professor, Mian Javed Ahmed, died in judicial custody in Lahore District Jail. The professor, who had been arrested by National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in connection with opening illegal campuses and “minting millions” from students, reportedly experienced a cardiac arrest in jail custody. The Senate Standing Committee for Human Rights, however, was not convinced by this explanation and the chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), retired Justice Ali Nawaz Chowhan, took suo motu notice of his death, to investigate if any human rights of the prisoner were violated in custody. However, little was the NCHR to know that the process would not be so easy.

According to the NCHR, NAB has denied the top human rights body of the country access to its detention centres. After the incident of the Professor’s death, NHCR had written a letter to the anti-graft body with the request to allow a team of the commission to inspect the places of detention yet NAB has not responded to the letter. Without accessing NAB’s detention centres, it will be almost impossible for the NCHR to conduct a thorough investigation on to any probable rights violations that may have occurred to prisoners in custody.

Denying access for an investigation will only undermine NAB’s own credibility on upholding fundamental rights and dignity of prisoners. Not only does this tarnish NAB’s reputation but it is also illegal for the anti-graft body to deny the NHCR access to the detention centres. The commission, which was established under the National Commission for Human Rights Act, 2012, is authorised to work for promotion and protection of human rights with the powers to take suo motu action under Section 9 of the Act. By not allowing NHCR to inspect its detention centres, NAB risks damaging its credibility at a time when the body is under scrutiny for handling sensitive political cases.

This is not the first instance of rights violations reported from detention centres. Former VC of Punjab University had alleged earlier that there were CCTV cameras in the washrooms of NAB’s lockup. These unchecked accesses of Pakistan’s custody centres are particularly worrying considering Pakistan does not have a specific provision outlawing torture, nor are there many human rights protections guaranteed to prisoners. This issue should not be taken lightly- Pakistan has ratified many international conventions which emphasise prisoners’ rights. NAB needs to respect both the domestic and international law, and allow investigation.