Reforming Pakistan’s corrupt and dysfunctional prison system is central to curbing rising crime and militancy, fixing a deteriorating criminal justice system and enforcing the rule of law.
Reforming Pakistan’s Prison System , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, continues a series of reports on a deteriorating criminal justice sector that fails to prevent or prosecute crime and protects the powerful while victimising the underprivileged. Heavily overpopulated, understaffed and poorly managed, prisons have become a fertile breeding ground for criminality and militancy, with prisoners more likely to return to crime than to abandon it.
With outdated laws and procedures, bad practices and poor oversight, the criminal justice system is characterised by long detentions without trial and few distinctions made between minor and major criminals. Prisons have nearly 33,000 more prisoners than authorised, the large majority remand prisoners awaiting or on trial. Given weak accountability mechanisms for warders and prison superintendents, torture and other abuses are rampant and rarely checked. A permissive environment, along with abysmal living conditions, has made prisons a hotbed of drug abuse, violence, and criminality. Illegal detentions by the military, by exacerbating local grievances, also create a fertile ground for militant recruitment, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
“Policymakers should acknowledge that what happens within prisons is not isolated from what happens on the outside”, says Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director. “The treatment and conditions of prisoners is a key yardstick for the state’s willingness to uphold the rule of law, improve access to justice and protect citizens, a test Pakistan has thus far failed”.
The federal and provincial governments should take steps to reduce overcrowding by enforcing existing bail laws, reforming the sentencing structure for non-violent petty crimes and establishing functional probation and parole regimes aimed at rehabilitating and reintegrating released prisoners into society. Separating hardened criminals, including militants, from juveniles, minor and first-time offenders and remand prisoners is vital. The National Assembly should also review and reform the outdated Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act that regulate Pakistan’s criminal justice system and have failed to address the current challenges to law and order.
The government should also commit to ending torture and other ill treatment of detainees, enforcing constitutional and legal protections, as well as the provisions of treaties to which Pakistan is a signatory, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In doing so, it should take strong action against any police and prison officials who violate the basic rights of prisoners.
While the current government has taken some steps to improve justice delivery, fixing a broken system will require substantial human, financial and political capital. “Major reforms are necessary to restore public confidence in the government’s ability to enforce the rule of law while protecting the rights of all citizens”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “If Pakistan’s prison system remains brutal, opaque and overcrowded, it will continue to aggravate rather than help resolve the country’s major internal security challenges”.