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A thirst for barbarity

Updated March 22, 2018

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“The dignity of man … is inviolable”
— Article 14, The Constitution of Pakistan

FEW recent incidents have shocked the people as much as the one involving two young Christian men, one of them accused of blasphemy and the other nearly killing himself in a bid to escape torture. Even more outrageous appears to be the Punjab government’s stubborn refusal to order a proper probe.

Both men have made extremely grave allegations of torture by the investigation team. The one who jumped from a fourth floor window also alleges he had been asked to commit sexual abuse.

The investigating agency denies these allegations and wants one of them tried for blasphemy and the other for attempting suicide.

Civil society organisations have been demanding a probe by a joint investigation team, which is now a routine step in serious cases, but it has been in vain.

Meanwhile, the Senate has called for the public hanging of little Zainab’s killers and the federal law ministry has proposed that the dead bodies of child abuse convicts should be displayed in public.

Is there any connection between these cases?

Yes, they are rooted in Pakistan society’s insatiable thirst for barbarity.

The present phase of suspension of reason by a large section of society in matters of crime and punishment began last December in reaction to the Zainab case. The outrage was utterly unbearable. It demanded a dispassionate probe into the descent into the bestiality that the incident had revealed.

What materialised, instead, was a competition for prescribing the most inhuman punishments for the culprit.

The culture of brutality preached over the past several months will leave indelible marks on the people’s psyche.

Resolutions were moved in the Punjab Assembly by women members from the PML-Q, the PTI and the PML-N calling for the public hanging of the convict. The lead was soon taken by the PPP’s Rehman Malik who moved a bill for amending Section 364 of the Pakistan Penal Code to provide for public hanging.

That he forgot his party’s opposition to the death penalty and the moratorium on executions maintained by the government of which he was a part was difficult to understand, to say the least.

The bill ran into stiff opposition in both houses of parliament and was finally rejected by the relevant standing committee.

During the debates on the bill, several parliamentarians recalled the brutalising effects of the public hanging staged by Gen Ziaul Haq. Some others contended that no change in the law was necessary as a public hanging could be arranged under the Prison Rules.

A reference was made to the Council of Islamic Ideology and its head said that under the Prison Rules 12 persons could be allowed to witness a hanging inside a prison. Their number could be raised to 40 and the media could be invited to watch the hanging and broadcast details of the execution.

The argument that public hanging had been held as violative of fundamental rights by the Supreme Court had little effect on the debate. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recall what the apex court had declared in 1994.

During a suo motu hearing, chief justice Nasim Hasan Shah observed that under Article 14 (1) of the Constitution, the dignity and self-respect of every man had become inviolable, that the guarantee was not subject to the law and thus it was an unqualified guarantee.

Accordingly, the dignity of every man was inviolable in all circumstances, and executing in public even the worst criminal violated the fundamental right contained in Article 14.

The court also referred to the bar against torture mentioned in the declaration of human rights in Islam adopted by Muslim scholars in 1980. The matter was disposed of when the court was informed of the Benazir Bhutto government’s policy decision not to carry out any execution in public.

This case was recalled by the representative of the law ministry who briefed the Senate standing committee on law and justice but then he advanced, on behalf of his ministry, the outlandish proposal that the bodies of child abuse convicts be paraded in public.

He obviously did not realise that the dead body of a human being was as inviolable as a living person’s dignity of person.

The debate on public hanging and desecration of dead bodies will soon be forgotten, more or less in the way the issue of a woman’s getting married during the iddat (mandatory period of rest and abstinence after the end of a marriage) and the barbers’ resolve not to trim beards in ‘un-Islamic’ fashion have been superseded by the sale and purchase of votes.

But the culture of brutality preached over the past several months will leave indelible marks on the people’s psyche that still feel the effects of Zia’s brutalising measures. The administration, which already deals with citizens through force, could become fonder of violence as a tool of governance. The judiciary, steeped in the mores of retributive justice, might sink deeper into the morbid theory of deterrent punishment.

This is not mere fancy. Some years ago, a trial court ordered a young man be executed by the father of the girl he had killed, on the school playground in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the murder had been committed. The enormity was not noticed by the superior courts till preparations for the shooting in public were started. Mercifully, the programme was quietly cancelled.

Then there was the verdict against the monster who abducted around 100 children, sexually abused them and dissolved their bodies in acid. The court ordered his body to be cut up into 100 pieces and thrown down from the Minar-i-Pakistan. (His mysterious death in jail prevented the people from watching a spectacle unmatched in modern history.)

Brutalisation of the mind is as deadly an affliction as any known to humankind. The hunger for barbarity will affect people in their private and public lives, as it obliterates the fine line that separates sanity from lunacy. Until the drift towards cruelty is arrested there will be no fair trial for the blasphemy accused, and demands for inhuman and degrading punishments will continue to be voiced.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2018