Unequal justice

May 07, 2020

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A MORE bleak assessment of the criminal justice system can scarcely be imagined. On Monday, the Islamabad High Court described the criminal justice system in its jurisdiction as “alarming and abysmal… [It] is definitely not serving its purpose; rather it… appears to have become a source of grave injustice”. These remarks were included in a strongly worded judgement by Chief Justice Athar Minallah at the end of proceedings that saw the accused in seven different murder cases acquitted. Most of the individuals had already spent around 10 years each behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Their ordeal is a stark illustration of how the system fails to protect the fundamental rights to life, liberty and due process. Justice Minallah listed several of its more problematic aspects, among them the fatally flawed police investigations that either result in unsafe convictions or allow perpetrators of even serious crimes to go scot-free. Matters in the rest of the country are no different, and the chief justice correctly observed that this shambolic state of affairs has been a very long time in the making. It is “a reflection of the apathy, neglect and mis-governance of the past seven decades and no organ of the state can absolve itself from being responsible.”

Former Supreme Court chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa had also at the beginning of his tenure last year declared his intention to address the undue delays in judicial determination of cases and tackle the scourge of fake witnesses and false testimonies. Setting up model courts across the country to streamline and expedite trial proceedings was part of Mr Khosa’s reform efforts. In 2019, these courts decided more than 30,000 cases. On Tuesday, the day after its scathing verdict, the IHC proposed a policy whereby criminal appeals would be decided within three months, a process that often takes years to conclude. No wonder the country’s overcrowded jails are heaving with under-trial prisoners. Sometimes, inmates die of natural causes while waiting for the outcome of their appeal. In a particularly macabre incident not long ago, two brothers did not live to see their convictions for murder overturned because they had been executed by the state before their appeals were decided.

However, judges can only rule on the evidence presented before them, and only when there are simultaneous reforms in the functioning of the police can there be any improvement in the dispensation of justice. As matters stand, in the absence of resources and training — and the prevalence of a corrupt ‘thana culture’ — what often passes for ‘investigation’ is planted evidence, confessions under torture, etc. In other words, the victim can easily be cast as the perpetrator, and the innocent be thrown behind bars simply on the whims of the powerful. And yet, there seems to be no political will to right this dystopian nightmare.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020