(New York) – Pakistani authorities should order an independent civilian investigation into the alleged torture and death of an opposition party worker in Karachi, Human Rights Watch said today. Aftab Ahmad, a member of the opposition Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), died on May 3, 2016, while in the custody of the Pakistan Rangers, a federal paramilitary force.

Pakistan Rangers stand before taking their positions during a counter-terrorism training demonstration at the Rangers Shooting & Saddle Club (RSSC) on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan, February 24, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

The Pakistan Rangers’ director general, Maj. Gen. Bilal Akber, admitted that Aftab was tortured in their custody. The same day, the Sindh provincial government extended the paramilitary’s powers to operate under the Anti-Terrorism Act for 77 days. The use of the Rangers in ordinary law enforcement, for which they have not been adequately trained, raises serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

“Extending the Pakistan Rangers’ special powers on the same day they admit to torture shows the government’s disregard for the safety and well-being of the population,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “An independent civilian investigation into Aftab Ahmed’s death should be the first of many steps toward holding the Pakistan Rangers accountable for abuses.”

On May 2, a special Anti-Terrorism Court sent Aftab to 90-day preventive detention for unspecified crimes. The next morning, authorities brought him to the hospital with no pulse and no blood pressure and he was declared dead in minutes. An autopsy report found that over 35 percent of his body was covered in bruises and abrasions inflicted while he was still alive, indicating torture. The autopsy did not provide a cause of death, but Maj. Gen. Bilal Akber claimed Aftab died from a heart attack and not because of the torture. In an unusual step, the chief of army staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, ordered a military inquiry into the death.

Pakistan Rangers are deployed in Karachi under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, which authorizes them to prevent terrorist acts or other terrorism-relative offenses, which are prosecuted by a special Anti-Terrorism Court. In September 2013, the Rangers were given additional policing powers to act against criminal suspects implicated in targeted and sectarian killings, kidnappings for ransom, and extortion.

The Anti-Terrorism Act provides broad powers to the Rangers and other state security forces that have facilitated serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. Soldiers are permitted to “shoot to kill” after giving a warning, but are not bound by human rights standards that permit the use of lethal force only in self-defense or to protect the lives of others. They can conduct arrests and searches of property without a warrant.

The Pakistan Rangers are a border security federal force under the Ministry of Interior, but operate under the command of the Pakistan Army. Military control over the Rangers effectively transfers key law enforcement duties in Karachi to the armed forces, which has a long record of committing human rights violations with impunity, Human Rights Watch said.

The Rangers have been implicated in serious rights abuses, including torture and other ill-treatment of criminal suspects, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a nongovernmental human rights organization, has criticized the Rangers for enforced disappearances and other violations of due process rights, and stressed “the need for transparency in security operations.”

The Pakistan Rangers have been implicated in abuses across the political spectrum, Human Rights Watch said.

Dr. Asim Hussain, a medical doctor and a member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has been in Rangers’ custody since August 26, 2015, on charges of “harboring and treating terrorists and gangsters” at his hospital, among other charges. HRCP has expressed serious concerns about Hussain’s treatment in Rangers’ custody and its impact on his mental health, and that it “is greatly alarmed by a recent report submitted in court about Dr. Hussain’s psychiatric condition.”

Pakistan is a party to the Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Under article 12 of the convention, the government is obligated to “ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.”

“Giving the military a free hand in law enforcement through the Pakistan Rangers has been a recipe for disaster,” Adams said. “The military should strengthen its call for an investigation into the Aftab case by endorsing an independent inquiry.”