Unfair justice

17 Sep 2020

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IN remarks that mirror reality, the attorney general of Pakistan, Khalid Jawed Khan, acknowledged that our criminal justice system favours the perpetrators of the crime rather than the victims. Speaking at a ceremony to mark the start of the judicial year at the Supreme Court, the AG rightly said that injustice is at its worst if the perpetrator is socially or financially powerful. He also spoke about the deep flaws in the investigation and prosecution processes that allowed criminals to get away with their crimes. In civil matters, he said, cases linger on for generations and in ­white-collar crimes perpetrators pass themselves off as victims due to a faulty accountability mechanism. The AG also regretted that women usually bear the brunt of the injustice prevalent in our system.

It is refreshing to hear the AG admit these fundamental and structural flaws within our system. It is unusual for state functionaries to admit how broken our criminal justice system is. It is either a lack of understanding, or of acceptance of this reality, that often leads people to cite harsh punishments as a panacea for crimes. Very few among our public office holders display the courage to accept that unless the criminal justice system is reformed, no amount of harsh punishment will curb crime. In the case of the motorway rape incident, we are witnessing similar superficial remedies being offered by parliamentarians and state functionaries at large. These people prefer the shortcut — and one that is ineffective — of public hangings than the tedious reform process of fixing our policing, investigations, prosecution and transparent litigation that provides justice that is timely and affordable. These are difficult tasks but there is no way around them. Any government that wants to fix this broken system will need to delve deep into these matters and repair damaged institutions with consistent and sincere efforts. However for this to happen, the governments of the day will need to depoliticise policing. It is unfortunate that no government in Pakistan, including the present federal and provincial ones, is willing to take this step. If the root cause is not addressed, not much can be achieved except superficial measures that cater more to optics than substance.

The AG has said the right things. He now needs to push for action on them. He commands influence within the system and therefore his words, while welcome, should be the first step in a process to reform the criminal justice system. The judiciary plays a critical role and it too has a responsibility to reform its own house that continues to be burdened with delays and many other ailments. Without such reforms Pakistan will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis without realising that firefighting is the wrong strategy to address deep-rooted weaknesses. The challenge has never been clearer.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2020