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DAWN - Features; May 3, 2005

May 03, 2005

No thanks to the system

By Aileen Qaiser

THERE must be something terribly wrong with our justice system that forces common people like Nazish Asghar and Sonia Naz to resort to extreme action in order to exact justice.

Nazish Asghar threatened self-immolation in front of the Parliament House if the prime minister did not help in arresting those who had criminally assaulted her, including several police officers. It is the height of injustice that the very system from which she tried to seek justice for the crime committed against her, had also perpetrated the same crime on her.

Sonia Naz, on the other hand, had “intruded” into the National Assembly while it was in session in a desperate attempt to meet the prime minister and plead for help in recovering her husband who has been missing “in police custody” since October last year.

According to a report, the family had already dished out Rs1.4 million to the police as bribe for his release in an alleged fraud case. When the police started demanding more money, Sonia Naz tried to approach the prime minister for help instead.

Nazish Asghar and Sonia Naz did what they thought correct because they found the system around them extremely uncooperative in their quest for justice. Their actions raise unsettling questions about our justice system and our sense of compassion, both of which are often in deep slumber until woken up by the press and/or by directives from the very top.

According to a saying by one Martin O’Brien: “The worst thing is apathy - to sit idly by in the face of injustice and do nothing about it. There is a real responsibility to challenge things that are wrong.”

The actions of these two brave women not only confirm that justice is elusive in this country, but also reflects the widespread belief that it can be found only in the corridors of the National Assembly. What use then is it of our law enforcement, courts and prisons — otherwise known as the justice system?

As for Sonia Naz, the price she had to pay for “intruding” into the National Assembly was to remain several days in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail before she managed to get bail and approach the high court again for help in her husband’s recovery. The Lahore High Court on April 27 ordered the Faisalabad Police to produce her husband by May 6.

Nazish Asghar has been somewhat luckier. After her plight was highlighted by the press, some high level moves towards delivering justice to her were made. The PML chief met with Nazish and her parents in Islamabad and promised her justice. The prime minister was reported to have directed the chairman of the PML Public Complaint Bureau to ensure the arrest of the culprits in her case within 24 hours.

Next, a special committee under the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior was also formed to investigate the case. And then in an interview over the Voice of America, the adviser to the prime minister on women development reassured that the government was “with” the victims and that a “positive” development in the case was expected shortly.

If luck continues to follow Nazish Asghar, she may eventually get justice, thanks to the PML chief, the prime minister and the special parliamentary committee, and no thanks to the police. But what of the hundreds of other Nazish Asghars who are seeking similar justice in this country?

On April 28, a story in Dawn datelined Sialkot reported the ordeal of a paralyzed mother of three children, who was criminally assaulted on April 12 by seven men, who had still not been arrested because they were “influential”. She appealed to the Punjab chief minister and the IGP to provide her security and to ensure the immediate arrest of the culprits.

On April 29, newspaper reports highlighted the agony of Naila Farhat, a 16-year old horribly defaced acid burnt victim, who is in the condition she is today simply because she had warded off the advances of her school teacher, who till this day nearly two years after the acid-throw crime, remains scot free. She appealed to the government to provide her justice by arresting and punishing the main culprit.

Can our existing system grant justice to these women? Or do they also have to descend upon the National Assembly and resort to extreme methods like Nazish Asghar and Sonia Naz to get the necessary high level attention, and hence action and maybe then justice?

Will the prime minister need to send down directives to move the justice system into motion on each and every such case? Will special parliamentary committees like the one on Nazish Asghar need to be set up for each and every one of these cases to ensure that the victims get justice?

According to a report, the Nazish Asghar case had prompted the prime minister to direct that effective steps be taken to ensure “justice for all”. This “justice for all” can be ensured not so much by ad hoc measures like special parliamentary committees, but by an effective system of the police, the courts and the prisons that is able to deliver the much needed justice to more or less everyone who is seeking it.

Russian WWII veteran recalls life story

By Christian Lowe

MOSCOW: As a teenage soldier in the Red Army during World War Two, Boris Runov had his leg smashed by a German tank shell, fought his way across Europe and then talked 600 German troops into surrendering near Berlin.

Now a sprightly 79-year-old pensioner, he chatters excitedly about his life after the war — getting married, qualifying for his PhD and raising three children — but needs to be prodded to remember anything about the conflict itself.

“The main thought that everyone had was to finish the war off as soon as possible and get on with life,” Runov said, brushing aside the bravery that earned him his country’s highest military decoration, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

“There was this feeling: ‘Let this war be over soon and let us come out alive.’ It was: ‘How can we manage to stay alive?’” he said.

On May 9, dozens of heads of state, led by US President George W. Bush, will gather in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.

The venue is fitting because the Soviet Union’s death toll — historians estimate it at eight million servicemen and at least as many civilians — is far higher than for any other combatant.

Moscow’s city government is planning a grandiose celebration that will involve 50,000 flags, 200 km of coloured lights and a huge air balloon anchored off Red Square.

Meanwhile, the anniversary has triggered a dispute between Russia and eastern European countries such as Poland and Estonia which say the end of the war condemned them to 45 years of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian rule.

But for Runov the anniversary brings back more down-to-earth memories.

1943 CALL-UP: Conscripted in 1943, he joined a Red Army engineer corps as an officer. At the age of 19, he was put in charge of a 100-strong company.

“I had soldiers under my command who were the same age as my father,” Runov said in the canteen of the Ministry of Agriculture, where he is head of the veterans’ committee.

“The army took a very responsible attitude to food,” he said. “I went hungry when I was in training but I never went hungry at the front, not once ... (and) we always built a warm shelter when we stopped for the night.”

Because of his age, Runov missed the Soviet Union’s worst period of the war, the first three years when a shambolic Red Army was trying to hold back the German advance in bloodbaths like the battles for Stalingrad and Moscow.

By the time he reached the front the tide had turned and Soviet forces were pushing German troops back through eastern Europe.

In late April 1945, Runov’s unit was at the River Elbe, in Germany, when US troops and Red Army soldiers — soon to be divided by the Cold War — shook hands and posed for photographs together.

But he was building a temporary bridge across the river and had no time to savour the historic moment.

“We had a quick chat with the Americans, had a couple of drinks, and then moved on,” Runov said. “Our task there was over. We’d built the bridge. After that, we had to move on to ... liberate Prague.”

He is matter-of-fact about the dangers. In Poland, shrapnel from a tank shell broke his right femur and he spent weeks in hospital, he said.

GERMAN SURRENDER: On May 1, 1945, in a Berlin suburb, German troops surrounded him and were moments away from shooting him. He singlehandedly persuaded them to surrender, for which he was decorated.

“It’s not that it was frightening. But I did take some risks,” he said.

After the war, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin despatched thousands of Red Army soldiers like Runov to prison camps.

Their crime was to have tasted life outside the Soviet Union which made them, in the eyes of the paranoid Stalin, a threat. Many of them died in the camps.

“Not everyone was happy with how their life turned out after the war,” Runov said. “(But) things worked out well for me.”

He joined the Soviet Agriculture Ministry, found favour with Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev and worked his way up to deputy minister. Today, he keeps busy teaching at a Moscow agricultural college.

“Recently, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin issued a new medal for veterans of the war,” to coincide with the 60th anniversary, Runov said. “For us it’s probably going to be the last medal we get.”

“Most of us are over 80 ... Not many of us will still be alive by the time the 70th anniversary comes round,” he said.—Reuters