(New York) - In "Double Jeopardy: Police Abuse of Women in Pakistan," released today, Asia Watch and the Women's Rights Project, two divisions of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, charge the government of Pakistan with responsibility for an epidemic of unpunished police violence against women. The 106-page report finds that more than 70 percent of women in police custody are subjected to physical and sexual abuse by law enforcement agents, yet not a single police official has been subjected to criminal penalties for such abuse.

Based in part on a two-week visit to Pakistan in October 1991, "Double Jeopardy" documents repeated incidents of rape, sexual torture and physical abuse of women by law enforcement agents in Pakistan and concludes that the Pakistani government's failure to prosecute such abuse amounts to complicity in police violence and a systematic denial of equal justice to women. Asia Watch and the Women's Rights Project call on the government of Pakistan to denounce publicly the sexual and physical abuse of women by state agents, to put an end to impunity for crimes of custodial violence against women and to guarantee women equality before and equal protection of the law. Double Jeopardy concludes that Pakistani police routinely deny women basic protection due them by law. Police often refuse to register rape complaints by women, particularly if the complaint implicates an officer. Officers frequently illegally detain women in police lock-up for days at a time without formally registering a charge against them or producing them before the magistrate within the prescribed 24-hour period. Although women police officers are required to be present at the arrest and interrogation of women, this rarely occurs. Thus, women prisoners are often held in custody indefinitely by male police officers without the knowledge of the courts. Most sexual abuse of female detainees occurs in these periods of "invisibility."

More than 60 percent of all female detainees are imprisoned under the Hudood Ordinances, Islamic penal laws that discriminate against women both in law and in practice. The Hudood laws criminalize, among other things, rape, adultery and fornication, and prescribe punishments for these offenses that include stoning to death and public flogging. Asia Watch and the Women's Rights Project do not object to laws founded on religion, provided that human rights are respected and the principle of equality before the law are upheld. However, the Hudood laws as written and applied clearly conflict with these rights and principles: they prescribe punishments deemed cruel and inhumane under international law and, in practice, clearly discriminate on the basis of gender.

Double Jeopardy concludes that the vast majority of Hudood cases do not comport with international standards of due process and should never have been prosecuted. For the maximum Hudood punishments of stoning to death or 100 lashes, the testimony of women carries no legal weight. Thus, women have been sentenced to these cruel and inhumane punishments under a lay that explicitly prevents them from testifying on their own behalf. Men have also been cruelly sentenced under these laws, although men accused of rape are effectively exempted from maximum punishment because women cannot testify and because it is extremely unlikely that, as required by the Hudood law, there would have been four male Muslim witnesses to the act of penetration. While to date no maximum punishments have been carried out in Pakistan, nothing in Pakistani laws impedes the state from doing so in the future.

Even when the testimony of women is admissible under the law, for lesser Hudood punishments of flogging, fines or imprisonment, the Pakistani courts continue to exhibit a bias against women. Judges set unreasonably high standards of proof for rape allegations and, in the event that a woman cannot prove rape, the courts often prosecute her for adultery or fornication, despite the fact that a failure to meet the criminal burden of proof for rape does not prove that the same burden of proof for consensual sex is automatically met. In one case documented in the report, 18-year-old Majeeda Mujid was abducted by several men and raped by them repeatedly. When Majeeda was turned over by her captors to the police and complained of rape, the police charged her with illicit sex, imprisoned her pending trial and let the men go free.

According to several local human rights attorneys who represent women charged with Hudood offenses, the vast majority of adultery and fornication charges against women (most of which are registered by the women's husband or father) are not supported with evidence. Double Jeopardy documents several cases in which women were wrongfully detained by the police and prosecuted by the courts because they refused to marry men chosen by their families, decided to leave home or marry against their parents' will, or sought to separate from or divorce abusive husbands. In lieu of filing a formal charge against a woman for adultery or fornication or for complicity in an alleged sex crime, judges often remand women without charge to private detention facilities for indefinite periods. This is viewed by the courts as "protective custody" for the women, but amounts to illegal and often prolonged detention of women who are charged with no offense.

Although the acquittal rate for women in Hudood cases is estimated at over 30 percent, by the time a wrongfully prosecuted woman has been vindicated she is likely to have spent months and in some cases years in prison, often under poor conditions, and in all likelihood, having suffered sexual or physical abuse while in custody. Over 2,000 women currently are imprisoned under these laws alone.

State-sanctioned violence against women and sex-discrimination are not the exclusive lot of Pakistani women in Pakistani jails. Hundreds of Bangladeshi women are currently jailed in Pakistani and subjected to similar treatment. These women are smuggled into the country-at a rate of 100- 150 a month-and are forcibly sold into prostitution or domestic servitude. While the women are arrested by the police as illegal immigrants or for Hudood offenses, they government of Pakistan has failed to prosecute or punish a single person for trafficking in women or for the abuses commonly associated with this practice.