When jirgas abet crime

Published June 8, 2020

THE fracas involving ANP leader Ayaz Wazir in South Waziristan harks back ominously to the ‘bad old days’. That was when the district was part of the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which lay beyond the purview of the Pakistani courts and thus left the people deprived of judicial protection of their fundamental rights. On Friday, a jirga of the Ahmedzai Wazirs decided that a lashkar would raze Mr Wazir’s house to the ground. The tribal elders had reportedly been angered by the ANP leader speaking with the district administration to advocate for local police to be empowered to raid places where they suspected the presence of criminal elements. On Saturday, the jirga reconvened to raise a 2,400-strong armed militia to demolish Mr Wazir’s house. However, local police called in reinforcements from elsewhere in KP, including 500 elite force from Bannu. The show of counter force enabled the police and district administration to persuade the Ahmedzai Wazirs to come to the negotiating table and accept Rs1m and four rams as reparation from Mr Wazir and his clan. Peace has been restored, at least for now — but at what cost to the state?

Fata’s integration with KP in May 2018 fulfilled one of the principal demands of its residents — that the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation be done away with in its entirety (it had been amended in 2011). Thus, at one stroke, with the passage of the 25th Amendment, the people of the tribal districts had recourse to Pakistan’s legal system instead of relying on parallel mechanisms of justice known as jirgas. These tribal, all-male councils are known to have meted out wholly disproportionate as well as regressive and misogynistic punishments.

Then, in January 2019, the Supreme Court declared jirgas/ panchayats as ultra vires of the Constitution when they function as adjudicative bodies in civil or criminal matters. According to the judgement, they could lawfully operate as arbitration, mediation, negotiation or reconciliation forums between parties to a civil dispute.

However, as the latest incident shows, old ways die hard, and those who have historically wielded power do not give it up easily. More importantly though, the state, by facilitating negotiations whereby the intended target of a crime had to compensate the perpetrator — rather than arresting those holding the jirga, and planning and abetting the attempted crime — has abdicated its duty to the people. That the jirga announced its intentions so openly is also indicative of the impunity with which notables of the area operate. The state must demonstrate that it alone has a monopoly on violence. Then again, this is hardly the only jirga that has taken the law into its own hands. Nor are the tribal districts the only place where such gatherings take place. Pakistan must no longer indulge these kangaroo courts.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2020

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