LAW: THE OBSTACLES TO PUNISHMENT

Published August 8, 2021
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi

In her decades-long service as a medico-legal officer and, now, additional police surgeon at a public hospital, Dr Summaiya Syed Tariq has seen everything.

From examining pierced headless bodies after bomb attacks, acid attack survivors to tortured maids at the hands of otherwise ‘respectable elites’ of the city, she has seen the bitter tragedies of life quite closely. Tragedies that are often trivialised to ‘cases’ that have been ignored and reduced to dust, without any action from state and society.

One such ‘case’ also lies forgotten, but not by her.

In 2016, Dr Tariq was assigned to examine a pregnant minor from Karachi, recovered from Punjab. Initial investigations revealed that she had been kidnapped from outside her house days after her family refused a proposal.

“She had been passed around like a candy as revenge for her family’s refusal to bow,” says Dr Tariq. “She came to us completely broken, some six months later. Her body bore marks of extreme torture and we referred her for counselling.” But unfortunately it was too late by then.

While the body started to heal, the girl’s mental health deteriorated with every passing day. And as the pain became too much to bear, she chose to end her life.

This particular case is not an exceptional one.

The accumulative medico-legal statistics of Karachi’s three public hospitals (Abbasi Shaheed, Civil Hospital and Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center), released by the office of the police surgeon, Karachi, show an alarming increase of gender-based assaults, between 2013 to 2020 — a 40 percent increase in rape cases of females and over 200 percent increase in sodomy cases of males within seven years. While the increase may partly be because of a greater willingness of people to report such crimes, the statistics paint a horrific situation, which is by all accounts not even the full picture.

As state and society battle with rising sex crimes, the lack of certainty regarding deterrent punishments highlights the structural gaps in our criminal justice system

“This is just the tip of an ice berg,” says Dr Tariq. “In the entire metropolis, the real number will be 10 times more.”

A close inspection of the data reveals its limitations as well. It does not include the age of survivors — which could help researchers assess how many of them were minors — nor demographic locations of the site of the crime, which could help the law enforcement authorities to ascertain the hotspots.

Interestingly, the Karachi-based War Against Rape, in its 2020 report, states that the conviction rate on rape cases is less than three percent.

“The failure of our criminal justice system in providing speedy justice to victims of gender-based crimes and rise in sex crimes are correlated,” says Wasim Raza Naqvi, a human rights lawyer.

“There is a sense of impunity because of structural gaps within the system. It is not that the laws are not there or new laws are not being made, but their lack of implementation in true letter and spirit on provincial and federal levels is the biggest issue. Multiple pro-women bills were translated into laws between 2006-16 but to little effect.”

A research report by the Legal Aid Society, focusing on the gap analysis on investigation and prosecution of rape and sodomy cases, by taking into account as many as 50 cases, shows rampant procedural gaps within the legal system — with delays in trial time being at the top.

“The legally mandated trial time in cases of rape, sodomy and other forms of sexual violence, including sexual abuse, is three months,” reads the report. “However, the actual trial time takes much longer. Different courtrooms were revealed to have different methods of dealing with rape cases. In Gender Based Violence (GBV) Courts of Karachi East, cases are run on a day-to-day basis with the GBV Court operating on a daily basis. In Hyderabad, one day a week is appointed for GBV Court i.e. Tuesday, which may result in trials taking slightly longer to conclude.”

The average time taken from the framing of charges to a final order from the trial court is 9.6 months. This shows an astronomical delay of six months in the conclusion of trial.

The total procedural time (investigation plus trial) is revealed to be an average of 15.5 months, while on average each case took a total time of 16.8 months to reach a conclusion — contrary to the laws of the country that call for the judgment to be reached within three months, says the report.

As Legal Aid Society CEO, Barrister Haya Emaan Zahid points out at a digital session that, with rampant delays in court cases, there are more chances to lose out critical evidence, for witnesses to resile from earlier statements, more pressure on the victim to compromise, and for cases go off the grid.

Botched police investigations in relation to chemical examinations also causes blatant travesty of justice, the case of Faiz Rehman being a sad example. Rehman lost his six-year-old daughter to rape and murder in January 2016. Hearings continued for nearly three years and, in the end, the court exonerated all 19 suspects on the benefit of doubt, as it declared that DNA results had been contaminated.

“The prosecution [had] miserably failed to make out its case even by producing any circumstantial or documentary evidence or any other proof which [played]/ assigned any concrete role of the accused persons to give complete picture of the alleged crime,” said the judgment.

Dr Tariq says that while investigative officers rely heavily on the DNA evidence for sex crime cases, it is also a fact that the medico-legal collection of samples are often faulty, delayed or not preserved properly — which ultimately leads to the loss of other corroborative evidences.

“Sexual assaults are multi-dimensional, requiring at least three different departments to work together, such as the police, the medico-legal department and the judiciary,” says Dr Tariq. “Our dismal conviction rate is enough evidence to mandate revolutionary reforms at all levels.”

She adds that it’s not all doom and gloom, as things are moving in the right direction — albeit slowly. There is a plan to include 200 specially trained GBV police investigation officers in Sindh.

As the state and society battles with rising sex crimes, aiming to minimise the structural gaps present in the criminal justice system, the sex crime rate appears to be growing exponentially. A few days after the minor’s suicide, Dr Tariq was treating a barely five-year-old kid, who had come to the hospital facility in extreme pain, with blood dripping from his trousers. His examination revealed sexual assault and extreme injuries to his privates.

“The stories are all the same,” she says in a grim voice. After a heavy silence she adds, “May those who were subjected to evil find peace. They deserved a better life that was snatched away from them.”

The author is a graduate of politics and international relations from the Royal Holloway University of London.

He tweets @ebadahmed

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 8th, 2021

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