Right to murder

Published October 21, 2022
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

IMAGINE a land not too long ago, and certainly not too far away: a special place. It is weak, it is fraught, it is violent — but then, so are plenty others. What makes this land special is the law it has. Because the law favours the murderer.

Bear in mind the difference: the letter of the law gets the murderer off. Not the system, though it does. Not the lawyers or police or prosecution, though they do as well.

The letter of the law itself springs every last killer in the land, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in their wake. (Some good Samaritans, thus, are more than happy to kill again.)

Imagine, also, that this right to murder has zero bearing on one’s freedom. Killers can run free, on a pay-as-you-go basis — it’s a wonder our tourism department hasn’t played this up yet.

The power of the blood pardon reigns supreme.

Now imagine this land is your land. After all, what else is common to Raymond Davis, Majeed Achakzai, Qandeel’s brother, and now, Shahrukh Jatoi and the Talpur boys? They breathe free air, while their victims rest in the ground.

The trouble with such a place, a dystopia that makes a fetish of its zulm, is that it becomes a living nightmare for those on the wrong end. Because ‘compromise’ — the sort of word that dead societies use to paper over the enormity of taking a human life — is almost never rejected.

Not by the courts where, barring a few exceptions, it’s accepted as a simple way out: a means to close a file, and to dispose of a jumble of facts and lies, in a system already groaning under the weight of thousands of cases.

Not by relatives, now at the mercy of the same killers. Take the case of Fahim, one of the men Raymond Davis shot dead in broad daylight. Fahim’s widow came home from her husband’s dua and committed suicide. After the doctors pumped her stomach, the last thing she said was that Davis would get away with it.

Take the case of Shahzeb Khan. He was protecting his sister, from beasts with a now-proven capacity for murder. Should he have done something different? Would you?

What makes Shahzeb’s case all the more striking is that the fury of the media, public disgust with the murder, the pall of antiterrorism offences, the interventions of two different chief justices, the anger of the attorney general, the fightback by Karachi’s civil society, the overwhelming proof of guilt, the concurrent findings of fact by the courts, weren’t enough. Jatoi walked.

Read: How to get away with murder — Pakistan edition

Much of this goes well beyond the law. For one, it helps to have backers: Davis had the deep state parachute him to safety. Jatoi had the PPP government as his grubby accomplice, as well as a flock of vultures crying hot tears: about wrongful terrorism charges, about judicial overreach, about middle-class rage.

Apt defences or not, they certainly distracted from one basic fact: that Jatoi sprayed a kid with bullets in the middle of the street, for no other reason than that he could.

It helps to be rich, too: more murder money to give to the heirs, and enough fees for the best defence lawyers. But what power did Qandeel’s brother have? What influence? He only needed time and pressure, all the way until the parents broke down.

This is because the power of the blood pardon reigns supreme in Pakistan; all else falls by the wayside. It is now at the bloody heart of our criminal justice system.

We can try and kid ourselves: that over-and-above ways to block those pardons — locking them out when it’s an honour killing, or when it’s terrorism — will save us. More realistically, that it will save our kids, our parents, our spouse, our siblings.

But honour killing amendments couldn’t stop Qandeel’s brother from walking free, because the Lahore High Court said it wasn’t an honour killing. Terror charges couldn’t stop Jatoi from wal­­king free, des­pite three different tiers of courts ruling per terrorism provisions.

In fact, this whole debate is secondary: there was never any doubt, honour or not, that Qandeel’s brother was her killer. There was never any doubt, terrorism or not, that Jatoi was Shahzeb’s. Blood pardons carried them both over the finish line.

And that’s where we are today: this contributor has already written up a history of the blood pardon in these pages. What needs to be done now is to fix it, and make its victims whole.

Since 1990, courtesy this law’s many authors — the Afzal Zullah court, the GIK caretaker regime, and Nawaz Sharif’s second ministry — Pakistan has sunk into a free-for-all bloodbath.

But the law we have is not reflective of the actual judgement that demanded it, or the vast school of Islamic scholarship to the contrary. Intentional murder must be struck off as a compoundable offence for good, and the Penal Code and CrPC amended. Until then, the courts must reject rigged compromises as the rule rather than the exception; to know that fasad fil arz abounds here.

Because as of now, there is not a single legal protection between a killer and his victim — and that extends to every last Pakistani. Do we keep exchanging money for murder?

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2022

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