Pakistan has come one step closer towards ensuring that its laws comply with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights has approved an extremely important bill that criminalises torture and the death of suspects in custody.

There are several crucial changes that this bill introduces which significantly improve the quality of our justice system and bring them closer to compliance with international law. While the constitution of Pakistan guarantees that the dignity of a person shall not be violated, there had not existed any strong anti-torture provisions in our legislation. One of the changes that this bill brings is enacting an emotional or mental aspect to the definition of torture. Previously, PPC and other national laws while addressing torture, criminalised some acts, ancillary to torture in a general way while ignoring the element of mental suffering. The new bill, under Section 2 (n), includes “pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” in its definition. Criminalising exerting mental suffering as a way of torture in a new special law should to some extent improve the process of extracting confessions in police custody, which have in the past, unfortunately, resulted in exploitation and oppression of those in custody.

Another important change that the bill brings is expanding the ambit of this legislation not just to the police but to all public officials. Previous anti-torture provisions were included in the CrPC, Police Orders or the PPC, which only applied to police officers. By extending the jurisdiction of this law to all public officials, as in line with Article 1 of the Convention, and by criminalising abetment or aiding the crime of torture, which were previously not illegal, this bill does much to ensure that loopholes do not exist and custodial torture and death are absolutely illegal and prosecutable.

While there is a brilliant development, custodial torture does not occur in a vacuum. It is a symptom of a flawed detention and prison system. Until prisons and access to justice are not improved, acts of custodial torture will continue to occur. This is the first step in removing an established practice in the system.