Human rights agenda

Published November 27, 2018
The writer is a criminal lawyer and an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is a criminal lawyer and an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.

THE first 100 days of a first-time government are often tumultuous, strewn with tactical errors and gaffes, and hindered by inexperience.

The opposition morphs into the mythical Argus, ready to swoop down on any mistake. Press and electronic media seize upon every miscalculation. The government itself takes a defensive posture, trying to fend off the attacks that seem to be pouring in.

And so it was for the PTI-led coalition government that took charge on Aug 18. The first 100 days have been marked by the expected errors, but also by a remarkable intent to fulfil the promises the party made in its manifesto.

The 100-day roadmap, unveiled by the PTI in May, has been under scrutiny from the first day the government took charge. So sure was the government of achieving its goals that it even launched a portal to keep track of its progress.

It is for another writer to analyse the progress made on the economic and social welfare promises.

I will restrict myself to how the government has performed vis-à-vis its pledge to reform human rights, including revolutionising the judicial system, addressing problems faced by migrant workers in foreign prisons and rectifying the notorious prison system.

Regarding the overhaul of the judicial system, in its manifesto the PTI expressed a desire to reduce delay and the case backlog by “providing necessary resources and tracking systems”. It also proposed to amend the Code of Criminal Procedure to reduce delays and amend outdated laws. Though there have been developments in the form of a taskforce on criminal and civil law reform, much remains to be done.

There has been silence on reducing the scope of the death penalty.

For starters, without help from the other side of the parliamentary aisle, meaningful reform may remain a pipe dream. Taking the opposition on board is important keeping in mind that the coalition government does not have the numbers required in the Senate to pass the proposed bills, whenever they are tabled.

Separately, there has been complete silence on reducing the scope of the death penalty.

All available data points to an urgent need to revamp capital punishment and how it is accorded.

Since 2014, the Supreme Court has overturned 85 per cent of death sentences on appeal, citing primarily faulty investigations and evidence. One of the sentences overturned by a three-member bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa involved the tragic case of brothers Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar. After 13 excruciating years on death row, the brothers had been hanged a year earlier, after their acquittal.

To prevent such miscarriages of justice, the government would do well to take a closer look at the death penalty in its judicial reform bill.

Non-lethal crimes must be excluded from the scope of execution. Trial and sentencing proceedings should be bifurcated. And a committee of representatives from various ministries must be formed to review mercy petitions to prevent wrongful executions.

Plenty of declarations were made in the manifesto regarding the rights of overseas Pakistanis. If elected, the PTI promised, it would provide “legal and consular services to all Pakistanis jailed abroad”. But, in our conversations with death-row prisoners in various countries, an overwhelming number said they had received no help from any government representative.

Read more:Families of Pakistanis jailed abroad seek PM’s help

Since Imran Khan became prime minister, eight Pakistanis have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia alone. Time is of the essence. Other than providing legal help as promised, the government would also do well to revisit the Prisoner Transfer Agreement approved by the previous cabinet. Not owning the citizens languishing in foreign jails is simply not an option.

Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari has, commendably, taken up the mantle of legislating on torture. Recently, Dr Mazari said the anti-torture and custodial death bill will be tabled soon in the National Assembly as it has been ready for over a month.

Refining the law to deal with this old menace could not have come at a better time.

The National Commission for Human Rights is currently looking into complaints of more than 1,400 confirmed cases of police torture in Faisalabad, where victims included women and juveniles. For a word that is not mentioned even once in the Penal Code, torture is shockingly common across the country, especially Punjab.

A great intellectual recently said that one must not pay attention to what leaders say, only what they do.

The 100-day performance calls for both optimism and caution.

The PTI government seems to be genuinely committed about enacting reforms that are in line with human rights, yet is short on implementation. Parliament is full of legislative wizards who can add or subtract provisions that will help the government’s cause.

The writer is a criminal lawyer and an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2018


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