THAT the Sindh Police has taken an initiative to bring improvements to the criminal justice system is a positive development. The law-enforcement agency has suggested a number of amendments to the colonial-era Criminal Procedure Code that would reduce the burden on the police, courts, prosecution and prisons, and also make access to justice less cumbersome for the citizenry. Among the proposed changes are the enactment of an alternative dispute resolution mechanism and civil trials, bail and pecuniary penalties for suspects in custody for possessing a small quantity of contraband. It has also been suggested that an SP-ranked officer should be made responsible for authorising or disallowing an arrest, as the case may be. At present, Section 54 of the CrPc gives unbridled powers of arrest to SHOs which are often abused.

These suggestions do have merit. Every dispute does not have to end up in court, but can be resolved before matters escalate. While fears that an ADR mechanism might strengthen parallel justice forums cannot be discounted, if handled cautiously by the state, it could save the aggrieved parties time and expense involved in court proceedings. Also, our overcrowded jails are heaving with under-trial prisoners, as well as convicts serving long sentences for having been in possession of a small amount of contraband. Procedural changes can rationalise this system with penalties proportionate to the crime and at least partly address the problem of overcrowded facilities. However, a qualitative difference at the policing end of the criminal justice system depends on two important considerations. One is trust between law enforcement and the public, and the other is a truly empowered and independent police. Unfortunately, both these factors are missing in Sindh — which is not to say that the other provinces are much better. Extrajudicial killings for which no accountability appears to be on the horizon, police pressurising victims to ‘compromise’ with well-connected perpetrators of crimes against them, difficulty in filing FIRs, etc have created a huge trust deficit. Many sections of the public see the police as an instrument of oppression rather than as upholders of the law. Linked with this is political interference in police operations, particularly where transfers and postings are concerned. These interventions have often created rifts between the IG Sindh, a federal appointee, and the provincial government. Such issues must be addressed if the criminal justice system is to see real improvement.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2021

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