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POLITICS & POLICY 

NEW POLICE REFORMS

There are differences among the members of the cabinet

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, 
Islamabad

April 08 - 14, 2002

The new police laws prepared by the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) and sought to enforce as ordinance has evoked serious criticism. The draft ordinance which was presented by the NRB in the last week cabinet meeting for approval led to a sharp difference of opinion among the members of the cabinet whether the draft should be approved or it should be first circulated to elicit public reactions, comments and suggestions.

A source told this correspondent that heated debate took place in the cabinet meeting. The Chairman National Reconstruction Bureau was reluctant to make the draft Police Ordinance 2002 public at this stage but President Musharraf decided otherwise when several others demanded so in the cabinet meeting. Many demanded that since the draft legislation would have a direct impact on the rights and liberty of every citizen so it should be made public so that it could be amended in line with the suggestions/objections received from different quarters.

The NRB chief was pressing the cabinet to approve the document. He insisted that the issue had already been debated in the public when an Interior Ministry's focal group prepared the police reforms package. But the others did not agree with him. The Minister for Petroleum was said to be the first to demand that the proposed law be made public. He said the draft law concerned all so it should be publicised to incorporate the people views.

The NRB chief admitted that there was a controversy whether the legislation on policing was a federal subject or provincial. He said that the NRB suggested that solution of this crisis by enforcing the Police Ordinance 2002 through a Presidential Order. The question whether the NRB's suggestion would solve the controversy, was not discussed or debated by the cabinet.

The cabinet secretary reportedly told the meeting that the ordinance being discussed was not vetted by the law ministry. On the question whether proper consultation with different stakeholders was done on the subject by the NRB, the Interior Minister presented his statistical analysis of the consultation process as done by the bureau. The minister said that the NRB was communicated by the federal and provincial authorities almost 388 amendments/objections in the draft law but the bureau incorporated hardly 27 of them.

The Law Minister referred to the structural errors contained in the draft legislation. He said the draft legislation contained duplications of offences, which were covered in the general laws of the country. The law Minister reportedly also said that many things that were included in the draft legislation could have provided in rules.

President Musharraf was said to be convinced over the majority's view that the document be made public but he also wanted to encourage the NRB chief, who was insisting otherwise, for his efforts in preparing the document. Quite judiciously Musharraf managed to balance the opposing forces by deciding to approve the document 'in principle' but choosing to make it public too. The 'in principle' approval of the Ordinance, according to the source, meant that the proposed legislation had been approved for making it public.

The draft legislation, it was agreed, would be publicised, widely circulated to seek the objections/amendments from all different quarters. These objections/amendments would be appropriately incorporated in the draft ordinance, which would again be brought before the cabinet for formal approval. however next time it would be routed through the law ministry for the purpose of its proper vetting.

The draft ordinance has been criticised by many government departments and agencies. The most severe criticism has come from Ministry of Interior. The Interior Ministry's comments were prepared in consultation with the Interior Minister Lt. Gen. (R) Moinuddin Haider, who is pursuing the objective of police reform ever since he was governor Sindh during the Nawaz Sharif tenure.

"Law and order" and police being provincial subject the Law Division may be consulted about the competence of the Federal Government to legislate on this subject, the interior ministry told the NRB. The response of the interior ministry, it is said, has touched the main irritant of the provinces, which complain that the centre is suggesting reforms in areas, which are in their jurisdiction.

Discussing the contents of the proposed ordinance, the interior ministry observed that heads of police in general police areas capital city district, city district and the remaining area of the province might have internal autonomy but their overall control and supervision should be that of the provincial police officer, who should be able to coordinate their functioning. "Setting up too many standalone forces would create coordination problems," the ministry commented.

The proposed ordinance also proposes to give the provincial police office or capital city police officer administrative and financial powers of secretary to the provincial government. The ministry observed that the powers of provincial secretary should remain with the government, which is responsible for laying down the rules. However, the police officers can be delegated maximum power as are required by them for efficient performance of their duties. In case of approval of the proposed provision, the home department will be rendered almost helpless/redundant.

The ministry also commented that the proposed police system was top heavy and suggested that level and number of posts should not be provided in the law and should be determined by the provincial governments. The NRB was told that in the proposed law too much emphasis on the ranks of officers was likely to take way the flexibility required in carrying out government functions. The ministry also found a number of police positions, mostly in higher sales, as redundant. The law, it is said, should neither lay down level of officers to be appointed nor should prescribe the minimum ranks. Another section of the proposed law empowers the provincial police to direct and regulate all matters of recruitment, training, postings, transfers, promotions and discipline within their respective spheres of authority.

"In the interest of economy and optimum utilisation of resources, matters such as training, recruitment and promotion may be determined at the provincial level." The ministry also disputed another provision, which empowers the city/district police chief to appoint additional police force. "The provision should not be made in the law as appointments of such police force without proper training may bring a bad name to the force. This power if at all it has to be conferred should be subject to the approval of the provincial government."

The draft ordinance is yet to be circulated officially, but it has already leaked out which has evoked serious criticism from different circles. It is commonly complained that the proposed law does not come up to the expectations. "It is not what was promised in respect of police reforms." The pervasive public experience is that their woes at the hands of the police flow from too much and unchecked power vested in the latter. It is a common practice for people to be hauled up on mere suspicion or vindictive complaints. Investigation, such as it is, follows only thereafter. The foremost public expectation, therefore, was for the arrest power to be made subject to obtaining a warrant from the judicial magistrate. This prerequisite would compel the police to conduct preliminary investigation and collect at least prima facie evidence to justify an arrest warrant. This, in turn, should block their instinct of beating the suspects black and blue to extract a confession, mostly false, which then, is retracted in court.

Against this bitter public experience and the resulting expectation, the proposed law not only retains the arrest without-warrant powers, but actually expands these across a wider spectrum of laws. The police can now interfere in some matters previously covered exclusively by civil, civic and even corporate laws. To make matters worse, the warrant pre-condition has been dispensed with even in the search of some public places. It is indeed amazing that the hazards so obviously inherent in these sweeping powers should have escaped the reformers' attention.

As a check on the police, the proposed law relies on a hierarchy of federal, provincial and district commissions, committees and authorities. For one thing, given the illiteracy and powerlessness of the vast majority, these amorphous entities will be beyond the comprehension of the people and far from their reach. Secondly, such watchdogs by their very nature plodding creatures incapable of providing the speedy redress which police high handedness very often demands. Thirdly, a police disdainful of its own command and notorious for circumventing even the orders of the high courts is least likely to submit to committees and authorities. Finally, many complaints are likely to end up for inquiry with the police themselves. This would translate into greater grief for the complainant, forcing people to "deal" with the police rather than run after the distant complaint authorities.

Thus, like the devolution law, some aspects of the proposed law are far removed from the realities of the society. To prevent it from becoming a dream for the police and a nightmare for the people, the draft police ordinance needs a lot of rethinking and re-doing.