x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Pakistani police accused of beating up suspects

Court and local official clash over consequences for officers filmed carrying out public punishment.

ISLAMABAD // The imposition of extrajudicial punishments by Pakistan's biggest provincial police force has been propelled to the political centre stage, following the broadcast of video footage of public beatings of criminal suspects. Independent cable news channels last week aired footage shot by residents using mobile phones of suspected criminals being stripped, held down and systematically thrashed by police officers wielding leather straps in the Chiniot and Hafizabad districts of central Punjab province.

In all three incidents, the beatings were an organised public spectacle, apparently a tactic designed to scare other criminals and boost public confidence in the police, who made no attempt to stop the incidents from being filmed. After one of the two incidents in Hafizabad, Shahid Hussain Bhatti, the area's representative in the Punjab provincial assembly, voiced support for the extrajudicial punishments, saying local residents had demanded the criminal suspects be "taught a public lesson".

Such unrestrained tactics would result in effective law enforcement, he had told a public gathering after the beatings - a point he reiterated in a subsequent television interview. However, the police abuses outraged the country's Supreme Court, which initiated proceedings under the human-right provisions of Pakistan's constitution. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice, while presiding over a hearing on Friday, said: "These incidents have created the impression that there is no rule of law, and that instead the law of the jungle prevails in the country.

"These examples of police brutality are being cited in order to demonstrate that this court will not tolerate violations of the constitutional provisions in any instance." The incidents have come as an embarrassment for Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab chief minister, and brother of Nawaz Sharif, the national opposition leader. Shahbaz Sharif has earned a reputation as being tough on violent crime by launching crackdowns during his two tenures as chief minister in the mid-1990s and again since 2008.

Mr Sharif last week ordered the arrest of the police officers involved in the public beatings and suspended their supervisors, and has instructed his party, the Muslim League, to investigate the actions of Mr Bhatti, who was elected as the Hafizabad provincial assembly member. However, those actions attracted censure from the Supreme Court, which criticised the Punjab government on Friday for limiting prosecution of the arrested police officers to criminal charges and not invoking constitutional clauses that guarantee the fundamental rights of citizens. The Supreme Court is seeking to set a precedent by enforcing constitutional provisions, the violation of which carries greater punishment and would bar police officers from being reinstated, as they often are after criminal conviction.

Mr Sharif responded by calling an emergency meeting of provincial law enforcement officials on Saturday at which he ordered a zero-tolerance policy on police abuses, and also sought to distance himself from the controversy by saying it was a hangover of the province's previous military-supported administration, voted out of office in February 2008 elections. Mr Sharif has for more than a decade been dogged by accusations, albeit unproven, that he has authorised "quick-fix justice" killings by the police - a charge he has vehemently denied.

He was prosecuted in 2000 for the deaths of more than 850 proclaimed offenders killed in armed encounters with the police between 1996 and 1999, when he previously held office as Punjab chief minister. However, the prosecution was widely viewed as politically motivated because it was initiated by the administration of Pervez Musharraf, who had overthrown Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister, in a bloodless military coup d'état in October 1999.

Legal proceedings were halted after the Sharif brothers were allowed to leave the country under an amnesty brokered by the Saudi government, an influential ally of Pakistan. @Email:thussain@thenational.ae