Justice denied

Published November 23, 2022

LESS than a year ago, it seemed justice had been served in the March 2013 murder of Orangi Pilot Project director Perween Rahman, whose death left Karachi’s marginalised residents bereft of a selfless campaigner for their rights.

The country’s criminal justice system, however, has emphatically dispelled that impression. On Monday, the Sindh High Court acquitted all five men who had been convicted of the crime by an anti-terrorism court in December 2021, and ordered their release.

Four of them had been awarded life imprisonment, while one was sentenced to seven years behind bars. The conviction brought a measure of comfort to a citizenry shaken by the murder of the architect and urban planner who, instead of a lucrative career path, had chosen to work on improving the lives of the underserved millions in Karachi.

The trial took eight long years, and laid bare the rot within the justice system, including a criminally defective police investigation that destroyed evidence and spoiled the case from the outset.

Consider that less than 24 hours after the murder — before any forensic tests were even carried out — the police claimed that Perween’s killer, allegedly a TTP member, had been shot dead in an ‘encounter’.

Dogged efforts by her family and friends in subsequent months to expose the flawed investigation prompted the Supreme Court to step in. Over the next few years, no less than one judicial commission and three JITs were formed on the apex court’s direction to uncover the facts behind the assassination.

In her pursuit for social justice, particularly with regard to rights on land and water — precious resources that formed the nucleus of vast criminal rackets in the city — Perween had made some ruthless enemies.

Her resistance to land grabbing emerged as a compelling motive for her brutal murder and helped achieve the convictions of the accused. Perween had been involved in assisting indigenous communities document their land in Karachi’s suburbs, a process that would have given them some protection from the mafia eyeing it for housing projects — and which came to an abrupt end with her death.

The Supreme Court has noted in some major cases that much of the violence in Karachi stems from land. According to the report of the second JIT looking into Perween’s murder, all the groups involved in land grabbing — which at the time also included the TTP — often support each other’s activities despite their political differences. It also stated that many murders “declared as being politically motivated or acts of terrorism, were in actual fact land disputes… .”

The acquittal on Monday sends a disheartening message to those risking their lives to stand up for those less fortunate, even as it emboldens groups who, with the help of unscrupulous political patrons, are devouring the city’s resources unchecked. The Sindh government must immediately file an appeal against the acquittal.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2022

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