Police Reform to Stabilize Pakistan

Photography by Annie A. Khan
From left to right: Aitzaz Ahsan, Arif Ali Khan, Hassan Abbas and Suzanne DiMaggio

Without laws a country is simply lawless— submerged in anarchy. But what good are laws without effective government agencies to enforce them? With visions of the Wild West and brave Sheriffs, somewhere along the plot of the Gary Cooper starrer ‘High Noon,’ I went to attend the event on July 24th, organized by Asia Society, New York to mark the launch of an extensive report called “Stabilizing Pakistan through Police Reform.”

The guests– part of the 20-member committee including senior Pakistani police officials and academics responsible for drafting the report– were Hassan Abbas, senior advisor at Asia Society and a professor of International Studies in the College of International Security Affairs at National Defense University, Aitzaz Ahsan, a barrister-at-law and Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a recently re-elected member of senate and Arif Ali Khan, a former distinguished professor of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at National Defense University. The discussion was moderated by Suzanne DiMaggio, Vice President of Global Policy Programs at Asia Society. Complete video coverage of the event is available via the Asia Society website.

“Education is also important, culture and arts are important we are not denying that. The theoretical model we are giving is, for those states where internal crisis, instability, violence, terrorism, rise in crime is the major issues you’ll have to deal with those issues first and foremost through local law enforcement,” said Hassan Abbas speaking about the importance of the report.  “And in law enforcement you need to have a criminal justice system, and police are the central part of the criminal justice system.“

I started to wonder if Abbas has read Mohammed Hanif’s “Butt and Bhatti”.  The points he had made so far made a lot of sense to me. We do need a functional criminal justice system in Pakistan, a framework where a police officer first determines the crime, then, based on the evidence, decides whether to apprehend the suspect, followed by a due legal process afforded the accused individual in a criminal court. The alternative scenario, according to Abbas, is the one where a gun and a head are involved, unfortunately an all too frequent reality.

The opposite was true for the American police, according to Arif Ali Khan, who specializes in the history of the evolution of the police system within the United States. The American police used to be too entrenched in their respective communities, before being trained to be more militarized and distant. But that too backfired and was tweaked toward a more humane ideal, leading to the current scenario where an officer won’t offer you his doughnut, but will give a polite smile and a nod of the head when he sees you.

Last up was Aitzaz Ahsan, who broke the police reform issues down into three broad categories. The first category was social reality, comprising the relationship of the police with civilians. “Yarron ka yaar” was the term he used to define the power play that makes a police officer bend the rules for his friends.

“The social normative reality is that the measure of power is the ability to abuse power. If you can’t abuse power then you can’t have respect,” said Ahsan.

The second issue he said was structural–that of internal problems within the police hierarchy, but also their place in the social structure of society.  And the third problem was technological, having to do with technology’s potential role in apprehending and ideally preventing crime.

The discussion was then opened to the public and a few questions regarding U.S and Pakistan’s relationship, the blasphemy law and U.S. aid to Pakistan were brought up.

At one point, speaking about the history of the involvement of the United States in the region Aitzaz Ahsan said, “ You cannot walk the streets of New York with a dog without a polythene bag to pick up the droppings there and then as the dog decides to ease itself, and you (the U.S.) left mountains of dog droppings on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said referring to the proxy war of the United States with the Soviet Union.

I wondered what the reaction of Sherry Rehman, Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., will be to the analogy the following day in D.C. where she will be attending an event with the same panel. For now, I was curious to know why Aitzaz Ahsan got involved with the police reform project. So I made my way to him through the throngs after the event was over.

“A man like me would never be a party to something that strengthens the police further,” he said in answer to my question why, when we were already being policed by the military, would he want us to be policed by the police too. “I have been on the wrong end of the police battle far too many times in my life and the wrong side of the military jackboot in Zia’s time to be at all sympathetic to an exercise which will entrench police further. Not at all.”