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Bearing false witness

February 18, 2019

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FALSE testimony, or perjury, is a scourge of this country’s criminal justice system. Many an innocent has gone to the gallows or languished for years behind bars simply because someone lied in court. It is therefore heartening that Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa has taken up the eradication of perjury as one of the cornerstones of criminal justice reform. Shortly before taking up the mantle of chief justice, he had emphatically declared his intention to build a “dam against fake witnesses and false testimonies”. On Friday, while hearing an appeal in a murder case, he reiterated the point even more forcefully, saying that those found to have lied in court would be sentenced to prison and banned from bearing witness again.

Individuals who commit perjury are complicit in the miscarriage of justice; they corrupt the legal process whose very purpose is to uncover the truth. In a well-functioning justice system, bearing false witness attracts serious legal consequences which act as a deterrent. In Pakistan however, bearing false testimony is treated — even by many judges — as a quotidian detail in a corrupt, ruthless system. The lower courts are rife with touts offering to bear false witness for a price; in effect, the life of an accused can be in the hands of an individual who makes a living out of misleading the court. This is not for lack of a law against perjury. Under the Pakistan Penal Code, giving false testimony at any stage of a judicial proceeding makes one liable to seven years behind bars, while punishment for false testimony in a capital case can extend to life imprisonment. In the worst-case scenario, according to the law, where an innocent person has been executed on the basis of false evidence, the perjurer himself can be sentenced to death. Who can forget that Aasiya Bibi came perilously close to being executed on the basis of false testimony, which also robbed her of nine years of freedom? Ultimately, it was the glaring inconsistencies in eyewitness accounts that resulted in her acquittal by the Supreme Court bench, which also included Justice Khosa.

The reason perjury is so prevalent in the criminal justice system is because the law against it is so rarely enforced that it may as well not exist. In August 2018, it came to light that the Sindh High Court and its subordinate courts had not prosecuted a single individual for perjury over the past three years. This must change. Of course, false testimony is not always purchased; sometimes it can be the result of witness intimidation, which is why witness protection must be made far more robust. Improved forensic facilities would also reduce the reliance on witnesses. In other words, perjury cannot be looked at in isolation: it is but one aspect of the interconnected, and rotten to the core, criminal justice system.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2019