State-backed impunity

ALL of us must have seen at some point or the other, a man in police uniform driving his motorcycle the wrong way on a one-way street and not wearing a helmet. We have also seen cars with green number plates parked in `no parking` areas, and police and army vehicles ignoring traffic signals.

We have seen police officials misbehave with protesters or people in custody. Whether it is a chief justice being dragged by the hair, a former foreign minister being handled roughly or ordinary citizens being slapped and pushed around, there are plenty of examples. It does not matter which party is in power at the time. What is happening to those who are out of power, is what was happening to others when the former held the reins.

We have been witnessing deputy commissioners (DCs) misusing Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) provisions across Pakistan. Police and other law enforcers have been capitalising on the registration of cases to arrest those people the state does not want to see free. We see many FIRs being registered against one person. We see names recorded in FIRs even of those known not to have violated the law. Sometimes, FIRs are sealed and their contents not disclosed.

Another practice is to register multiple FIRs regarding the same incident in different jurisdictions, and even register FIRs in different provinces to allow remand for a few days in order to move people from one province to another.

These tactics have been used before and are still being used by law-enforcement agencies. This is not in the service of justice alone. There are plenty of judicial observations and decisions which show the abuse of the powers the police and other LEAs have.

A journalist was abducted and went missing for months. Even after his return, LEAs and the judicial system haven`t really bothered to find out where he was, who abducted him and underwhich law, and what happened to him.

People `missing` for years have not been produced before the courts. Their loved ones have been protesting on the streets for years. In some cases, it is not even clear where the `missing` are being kept, and some relatives do not even know if their loved ones are dead or alive.

What is common to all these instances? The exercise of power? Definitely. Legally, the state has the power to use coercion, even violence in certain situations. Where the legitimate use of power is for the people`s protection, power can also be abused, even if there are differences of opinion on the valid/ non-valid use of coercion.

Regardless, the state has power.

But clearly, these instances are examples of the abuse of power too. No law allows policemen to drive in the wrong direction unless it is an emergency. No law gives police or army vehicles the power to break traffic laws. DCs cannot abuse MPO powers, and there is no law that makes exceptions in the case of due process and fairtrialforthe accused.

But what makes abuses possible and allows them to thrive is the impunity offered to perpetrators; this impunity is due to the fact that the abuses have implicit or explicit state support.

Can a DC abuse the MPO when the state does not want him or her to do so? He or she would be an OSD before the day is over. But look at how the game was played between the Islamabad DC and the Islamabad High Court. Even if there is some cost imposed on the DC, he or she could walk away so long as there is state support.

That is exactly why these abuses are hard to stop or rectify. If an individual police officer or DC or even a judge tries to stop the abuse or roll back its impact, there will be plenty of other officers willing to do the state`s bidding and plenty of judges who will not take on the case or who will take the state`s side.

Imran Riaz was missing for four months. Howmany court hearings were there for his case? Was it pressure by the courts that saw his return? It doesn`t seem to be the case. It seems the state had achieved whatever it wanted before letting him go. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances was formed in 2011. What has it been able to achieve since then? Has anyone ever been held responsible for the disappearances? Are not the relatives of the missing still onthe streets ofthefederalcapital? So, it seems clear that if it is the state and some of the most powerful institutions within it that allow selected acts of abuse of power to be committed with impunity, there is hardly a way to stop it.

Who can stop the state or these institutions? Other institutions within the state and society, of course. That is what happens in many countries.

But what if the other institutions are weak? What if political parties, the legislature and judiciary are weak or divided, and the media is throttled or compromised, and civil society has not been allowed to flourish? That is exactly what a poorly developed institutional structure looks like and this is exactly the place we are in.

Institutions are weak or almost non-existent.

Weak institutions hamper us in other pursuits too, including economic growth and development, but that is a topic for another time. For the moment, we can acknowledge the conundrum we face, and the quandary we are in, in terms of law and rights and mull over this situation. We can either develop multiple poles of power or have multiple points of view in the stronger institution to balance things out. Or other institutions can balance out the most powerful institution. If neither is possible, and that looks to be currently the case, it is hard to see how the abuse of power, given impunity by the state, can stop.

The wnter is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Altematives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.