Treating Prisoners

In its historic victory at Badr (the seventeenth of Ramadan), the small force of the fledgling Muslim society in Arabia left enduring lessons in waging war and peace – none of the scores of prisoners the force took during the battle faced extra-judicial execution, enforced disappearance, or a fake encounter. No one was tortured, stripped or humiliated. On the contrary, the prisoners were treated well, and fed well, probably the first salvo the rising faith hurled at the reigning dictum – everything is fair in love and war. Subsequently also, Muslim armies were under clear and standing orders:do not kill non-combatants, do not kill the enemy when he surrenders, do not cut trees, do not destroy standing crops, do not harm the bishops, do not touch children and women, do not subject the elderly to inconvenience.

“And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan and the captive.” (Ad-Dahr, verse 8) The directions are clear – treating prisoners well is an obligation on Muslims. The so-called modern world, on the other hand, has its  Abu Ghraibs, Guantanamo Bays, Papa 1s, Papa 2s and Gogolands, where prisoners are subjected to inhuman torture, killed, and disposed off in drains and water bodies.

A prisoner from Pakistan-administered-Kashmir died in mysterious circumstances last month while being transferred from court in Sopore to jail in Srinagar. An explosive device went off inside the vehicle he and his escort were travelling in. How the explosive device had been smuggled into the vehicle and how it had been triggered off are some of the many questions human rights defenders have raised. And this was not the only instance of prisoners being liquidated in conflict-ridden Kashmir. Hundreds of prisoners have died in “crossfire” while identifying an ammunition dump or accompanying forces personnel to a suspected hideout. Interestingly, not a single policeman has been killed in such “encounters,” “escape bids” or “rescue attempts.”

Authorities are under an obligation to protect a detainee’s right to life, dignity and honour. The law of the land protects the rights of even a condemned prisoner. When awarded, the death penalty too has to be carried out strictly according to procedure – no one is allowed to circumvent the procedure in any way. But this is what the law books say. Actual practice leaves a lot to be desired for. Will that ever change?