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The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has over the past 15 years documented close to 3,000 cases of torture from Asia. Most of these cases are reported through AHRC's Urgent Appeals Programme by partner organisations working in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Philippines, and Thailand.
Having documented and closely followed each of these cases, and thereafter having used them to study the nuances of the legal processes, the AHRC is of the opinion that the criminal justice apparatus in these countries, the procedures followed by related institutions, and the promulgated legislations, are unfit to end torture.
For instance, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are countries that have specific laws that criminalise torture. However, there are less than 15 cases decided in these countries wherein torture perpetrators have been adequately punished in relation to the nature of the crimes committed. None of these countries have a standardised legal precedence that ensures adequate compensation to victims of torture. In countries that lack a law that criminalises torture, the situation is worse.
The AHRC is of the opinion that torture will not end by merely criminalising the act, though legislation is an important step forward. For instance, none of the countries named above have investigation agencies equipped and trained to undertake scientific crime investigation. In fact, modernising crime investigation is not a priority for any of these governments. Chances are, without domestic and international pressure, it will remain so.
The engagement -- domestic, bilateral, and international -- made with governments in these countries are not adequate to encourage structural improvement in criminal justice processes. Too much effort is spent on training and sensitising law enforcement agencies on torture, with an expectation that such assistance will help state agencies end torture. What is forgotten is that despite all the best training and lectures law enforcement agencies in these countries may receive, the officers have to return, work, and put to practice their new learning in the same old limited institutional framework that persists in the apparatus across these countries.
For instance, in Nepal, considerable resources have been spent on training police officers, to assist them end the widespread practice of torture there. However, the government of Nepal is unable to allocate sufficient resources to even build police stations, provide vehicles to officers, or to have adequate number of officers to undertake investigation of crimes. Scientific crime investigation in Nepal is impossible, since the country doesn’t have adequate forensic facilities or professionals to utilize the same.
Conditions, however, are different in countries like India, where there is no dearth of financial resources. India is one of the richer countries of the world. However, the spending on reforming police, or in providing for the country's judiciary to have adequate infrastructure to end decades-long delays is virtually nothing.
In Pakistan, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, human rights defenders who work against torture are subjected to harsh treatment by the state. In Pakistan, even lawyers accepting briefs on behalf of victims of torture are not safe, and some have even been murdered. In Bangladesh, the incumbent government is on an over drive to purge anyone who documents or reports state-sponsored violence, for which it receives unconditional support from the country's judiciary.
Torture is violence committed upon the society by the state. Having no resources spent on reforming the criminal justice process means that the state actively participates in perpetuating violence in the society. Hence states in Asia use torture as an instrument for social control, imparted through fear and violence. This must be exposed, questioned, and ended.
Unfortunately, there is insufficient domestic or international effort to understand the complexity of torture that is being committed in Asia, as a crime in which the Asian states continue to play an active role. Instead, emphasis is on setting up national or regional human rights institutions to address torture and other human rights issues of Asia, as if these ombudsmen like institutions could replace the police and the judiciary and ensure justice.
To end torture in Asia, the Asian civil society must be encouraged and supported to work on the nuances of the criminal justice processes. Widespread prevalence of torture indicates the absence of fair trial guarantees in a country. Absence of fair trial cannot coexist with human rights expectations and promises. So, working against torture is also a strong means to improve human rights standards in any country.
June 26, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is occasion to rekindle the spirit of human rights in Asia. It is equally the responsibility of domestic as well as international actors to assist the Asian people to realise human rights guarantees.
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