Are public hangings the answer?

17 Feb 2020


The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.
The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.

THE resolution from the National Assembly to publicly hang those convicted of murdering and sexually abusing children reflects how brutalised our society has become. While the world is forming a general consensus against cruel and inhumane punishments such as hanging, the majority of our political leaders feel that a criminal’s barbarity should also be answered with barbarity by the state.

The fact that hangings have shown no decrease in the level of crime is ignored for the sake of rhetoric. If our lawmakers were indeed perturbed over crimes against children, more funds and attention would have been allocated towards the criminal justice system and the child protection legislation that is already in place.

It has been clear to our policymakers that what is needed is a rethink of the criminal justice system and to implement better child protection laws. For starters, it must be the police’s duty to report a crime related to a child; a hotline should be established for children’s cases in all provinces; identities of children should be kept confidential in closed hearings; there must be better training of law-enforcement agencies, and better and more available forensics; more female medico-legal officers and more women police personnel are required; and there should be a special code for examining vulnerable witnesses in court. This is not news but the lack of real priority accorded to children makes it easier to resort to rhetoric than actual work.

The facts of the Zainab Ansari case are telling. Zainab was the 12th victim in one year in an area of just two kilometres. The same murderer’s DNA had been found in the previous six cases. Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, then chief justice of the Lahore High Court, while hearing a petition in Zainab’s case, expressed surprise that despite reports of similar incidents in Kasur, none of the cases were brought to court. The state was missing until social media created a public uproar and the ensuing rioting was reported widely on mainstream media. The lesson was that it is better to riot and take to social media than report a crime to the police.

The lack of priority accorded to children makes it easier to resort to rhetoric than actual work.

Thousands of such cases surface but are not reported let alone go through the justice system. In 2000, Javed Iqbal, the self-confessed murderer of 100 children in Lahore, received a gruesome sentence — to be strangled with an iron chain, chopped into pieces and dissolved in acid in front of the victims’ parents. He apparently committed suicide in prison while his two innocent child servants served years in solitary confinement. The fact that there was a smuggling ring behind the disappearance of so many children was not investigated. A grisly sentence was considered sufficient.

In other cases, criminal rings in Kasur and Nawakali, Mingora, made pornographic videos of scores of children to extort money from their families. Only two in Kasur were convicted. Others were let off the hook because of local influence. This is the reality when crimes against children are uncovered.

Another case is of Tayyaba, the 10-year-old servant of a judge and his wife. She was brutally tortured by the couple but initially many in the lawyers’ community were reluctant to take up her case since the judge was influential. The sentence of the couple was reduced from three years to one year by the Supreme Court. Reportedly, in 2017, Tayyaba’s family chose to withdraw their allegations or come to a compromise (which almost always involves paying financial compensation). While on this occasion they were told the charges could not be withdrawn, they did not call for the punishment to be increased.

Tayyaba received a lot of media coverage but there are scores of others where the first response even in cases of sexual assault is for the police to pressurise the victim’s family to come to a ‘settlement’ with the perpetrator. The culture of compromise is so imbued within the criminal justice system that it sometimes appears to practitioners that the law-enforcement agencies are primarily arbitrating ‘settlements’ rather than apprehending culprits. When action against crimes against children is being compromised, the message is that those with wealth and influence are free to abuse those who are less privileged. Once the police have a duty to register and investigate a complaint in a matter involving a crime against a child, then the scrutiny of the court should ensure there is no compromise whatsoever.

There is no political will or allocation of funds to implement existing laws or review the system as a whole for children. The Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000 is still not properly implemented; children are tried with adults and even share prison cells with them. More recently, all provinces and the capital enacted child protection legislation to overhaul the law regulating orphanages, create sanctions for specific crimes against children, establish a child protection bureau, child protection centres, officers and courts. The legislation is dismal — from its drafting to its lack of implementation. In all provinces, the definition of children requiring protection is so wide that half of Pakistan’s children would fall under it.

In Balochistan, where the act is not even implemented, the definition of a child requiring state protection includes one whose feelings “are hurt”, who may feel “unloved, ignored, belittled” or suffers from “favouritism”. Child protection centres and courts are hardly in existence, yet the ambition of our lawmakers is so lofty that they wish to protect a majority of children in Pakistan. The reality is that Pakistan stands third from the bottom among 193 countries in the context of newborn deaths; polio is still endemic; child labour is rampant; and the country has one of the lowest budgetary allocations for children’s health and education. Against this backdrop it is condemnable that our lawmakers cover up their apathy towards the protection of children by calling for barbaric punishments. What is required is more realistic planning, more commitment and more coherence, rather than the rhetoric of violence.

The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.

Twitter: @sj244

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020