THE headlines this month largely have been about the ruling party and its electoral chances, the overall domain of politics and the accountability system, and indeed, the very future of Pakistan’s tryst with democracy.

A couple of weeks ago, though, the media briefly focused on a story that by rights ought to have merited the deepest introspection and shame on part of all the arms of the state’s administrative apparatus — whether related to governance, constitutional rights or the provision of justice. Through the whirling maelstrom of news related to Nawaz, Shahbaz, Imran, Bilawal, Zardari, elections, gerrymandering, horse-trading and a host such more, this particular piece of news passed through barely noticed, bar a few brief reports and an op-ed or two.

On April 7, Asma Nawab broke down in tears as she reached her home in Saudabad, Karachi. She was returning after some two decades, having left it in 1998 under the most appalling of circumstances. The facts of the crime were this: young Asma’s parents and younger brother were found dead in their home, in a pool of blood. Asma maintained that she had returned home to find this horrific scene. The police version was that she was one of the murderers, and the motive of the killing was that she had been caught out with a paramour — that, in fact, the crime had been orchestrated over a ‘love marriage’ (that most normal of impulses which continues to draw such ire from a patriarchal society where women are worth no more than their bodies, probably a bit less).

Injustice comes in all forms, as Asma Nawab’s story shows.

The wheels of ‘justice’ groaned into action, and Asma and two young men, Farhan Khan and Javed Ahmed Siddiqui, were taken into custody. Tongues wagged for a while in the neighbourhood, but the story was eventually forgotten except to leave in people’s mind a residual cautionary tale about keeping close watch and control over their daughters’ lives. (This last fact is testified to in an account written recently by a gentleman who lived in the neighbourhood when the crime was committed, and was one of the few to highlight it in the media.)

In 1999, a sessions court pronounced a double death sentence for all the three persons accused. They lived out the next two decades in prison, cloaked in the shadows of the legal system, pursuing the recourses that the law of the land does make available, but so agonisingly slowly that entire lives can be wasted in the process.

In 2015, the Sindh High Court rejected their appeal against the death sentence, but the lawyer, Javaid Chatri — no less another hero of this tale — plodded on. And finally, earlier this month, all three were acquitted by the Supreme Court and released, free to live out the rest of their lives as they pleased — and that depends on what they are able to salvage from the ruins of those 20 long years of being in prison.

One could say that it could have been far worse, that Asma, Farhan and Javed have still fared better than the unknown others who are in the clutches of the justice system either wrongfully or pending a decision from the notoriously, painfully slow legal system.

Cruelty and injustice comes in all sorts of forms: in 2016, the Supreme Court exonerated two brothers, Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Qadir, but when the authorities combed the prison system to deliver the good news, it was found that they had already been executed the year before. And similarly, Mazhar Farooq spent 24 years in prison for murder before being acquitted by the apex court in 2016.

The dispensation of justice, and that too in a timely, credible and ethical fashion, is one of the most basic organising principles of civilised human society and its requirements. In modern nation states, it is amongst its primary and most crucial responsibilities, no less than the provision of basic services and rights, etc.

If, for whatever reason, people are not getting justice, society itself can break down. It should not be forgotten that over a decade ago, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was initially — even if cautiously — welcomed in Swat because of its promise of speedy justice for the local people. And the matter goes far beyond the lack of cover of the formal justice system (as in Fata), or the speed at which it works. A fortnight ago, the malkhana [warehouse] of the city courts, Karachi, burned down, taking with it case evidence and case property from lawsuits pertaining to districts East and South, some of them dating back to more than a century ago. What recourse is there now for the litigants thus affected?

Keeping the democratic system alive is necessary, no argument, of course. But perhaps there needs to be more recognition in the corridors of power that for it to mean much to the people, it also has to be functional in all its vital aspects.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2018

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