The case of Noor Mukadam and the need to reform Pakistan's criminal justice system

Noor's case will hopefully prove to be the harbinger of change that drives the criminal justice system to correct its course.
Published February 25, 2022

This article was originally published on February 25, 2022.

It was a balmy summer evening on the 20th of July, 2021. The quaint capital saw slow movement as people scattered to prepare for Eidul Azha. As night fell, the city was stripped of its light, and our Noor was lost forever.

Panic gripped the city as frantic phone calls and forward messages of the gruesome murder of a 27-year-old woman started making the rounds.

As more details emerged, the accused turned out to be the boy everyone had at some point shared a meal with. Many had been hosted over at his residence, had heard his apparently inspirational talk about recovering from mental illness or been subjected to a session of therapy under the false pretence of being a properly qualified therapist.

The news was in — Noor Mukadam had been found dead in Zahir Jaffer’s home. An FIR had been registered and Zahir had been arrested, setting the stage for what would prove to be one of the most formidable battles of the country’s criminal justice system to salvage whatever little remains of the people’s trust and confidence.

As the days passed, the rumour mill started churning theories about the amount being negotiated for blood money — an infamous gift that has overstayed its welcome in the Pakistan Penal Code as a result of the apex court’s support of the verdict in Federation v Gul Hassan (1989 verdict by Shariat Appellate Bench of Supreme Court). This time, however, money was not able to claw its roots into the blood as the father of the deceased remained steadfast in his resolve to achieve justice for his daughter.

Cogs in the machine

Following submission of the challan in the sessions court by the police, public pressure started mounting on the judiciary to deliver exemplary punishment to the perpetrator. Thousands took to social media each day, demanding instantaneous justice as it was an ‘open and shut case’. The evidence glaringly pointed towards Zahir having murdered Noor and therefore, he should have been heading for the noose before winter descended upon the capital.

It is often forgotten that the criminal justice system is an entire machinery that needs to run its full course in order to arrive at a point where it can deliver justice that cannot be poked through and defeated with technicalities and arguments of infringement of the right to a fair trial. Allowing each hearing, each piece of testimony and evidence to run through the contours of legal mechanisms and filters that have been set in place for that very purpose support the notions of a fair trial.

The trial officially commenced on October 12, following the indictment of Zahir and 12 other accused. Four months later, the court announced its verdict, making it an extraordinarily speedy trial — a phrase that is thrown around often but never witnessed in actuality.

However, I would not be quick to hand out accolades just yet, because the ‘speedy trial’ in this particular case also reveals an abhorrent weakness — that the system can only deliver when someone is watching.

The mounting public pressure and press coverage that this trial received, if not completely then to a substantial extent, ensured that the hearings were conducted on a day to day basis, supported with special direction from the Prime Minister’s Office. Such interest by both the public and the state is unfortunately not afforded or extended to all murder, rape and abduction trials.

Circumstantial evidence

The trial itself has not been an easy ride, tracing back to the first press conference where the ASI mentioned the lack of an eye-witness, sending the prosecution into panic while potential defence lawyers started making notes and subsequently started planning strategies of how they would tear apart the circumstantial evidence.

As there was no direct evidence in this case, the prosecution had a tough job ahead of them to ensure safe administration of criminal justice whilst relying on circumstantial evidence. Most of the evidence that the prosecution relied on, and has been reproduced in the judgment of February 24, is that obtained from modern devices and scientific evidence — application and reliance thereof which is subject to forensics.

These requirements were duly complied with. For example, footage obtained from the CCTV was sent to the Punjab Forensic Science Agency in Lahore for forensics and photogrammetry tests. The results established the authenticity of the footage, therein satisfying the requirement laid down by the apex court in Ishtiaq Ahmed Mirza and others v Federation of Pakistan vis-à-vis reliance on video evidence.

Mental health

Ever since Zahir was arrested, much fuss was created around the state of his mental health, a question that the judgment has addressed and put to rest by declaring the prime accused to be “mentally fit and properly oriented” in light of a report of the medical examination that was conducted on the accused.

During the trial, the defence tried its best to get relief from the court, citing Zahir’s troubled mental health — glimpses of which he would exhibit during court appearances. It is when the trial court threw out the defence’s plea that it ran out of cards to use.

Thereafter, the defence resorted to advancing arguments of fruits of a poisonous tree, which could be seen in the form of attacking either contradictory statements by police witnesses regarding the time of arrival at the murder scene or defective investigation by the Investigation Officer.

As the court order states, however, arguments of the defence did not hold enough water to break the prosecution’s case. Moreover, mere technicalities and procedural defects were also lacking in any strength to weaken the same.

What next?

The death sentence handed out to Zahir now awaits confirmation of a two-member bench of the high court — a requirement under the law in Section 374 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Any subsequent appeals, if filed, would also be clubbed with the proceedings before the high court. This process may perhaps take another few months but one should not view that as a defeat or a weakness of the system even though much noise will be created regarding the pace of the proceedings. It is better to arrive at the finish line by having complied with all the formalities so the defence is not able to find procedural loopholes to latch on to in an appeal.

If one could claim a victor in all of this — apart from Noor’s parents — it would be the tenacious and competent prosecution, who in spite of having to rely on circumstantial evidence to advance their case when the same has to pass through strict tests as held by the apex court in the State through P.G. Sindhand versus Ahmed Omar Sheikh and Naveed Asghar versus the State, stood firm on their meticulous preparation of witness testimony and admissibility of video evidence.

It is also no secret that the office of the prosecutor is not the most lucrative of places and certainly seems like a thankless exercise at times. However, if the state were to invest more resources in it, most complainants would not feel the need to hire private counsels as the state would be providing its due services.

One cannot simply fathom what Noor’s parents must have gone through these last few months. However, this trial and the death sentence of the prime accused will hopefully provide them with some closure.

More importantly, Noor’s case will hopefully prove to be the harbinger of change that drives the criminal justice system to identify its weaknesses, strengthen its investigation mechanism and provide prompt and speedy response for all trials — even those that steer no vigils, public attention or uproar.