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Legal rot, political apathy

April 13, 2011

It was at once refreshing and worrying to see the rights activist and president of the Supreme Court Bar association, Asma Jahangir, in an interactive TV programme, Insaaf 24/7, on A-Plus the other night. It was refreshing that such a forum has been made available to the public via the independent media; however, it was equally worrying because of the kind of queries that were answered by the legal expert. Many had to do with miscarriage of justice to women, both under the prevalent social norms and the law as it exists.

Jahangir was seen as being very patient, cautious and even circumspect in offering her legal opinion on what have now become thorny issues – the obvious reasons being growing intolerance in society and the violence that has come to be practised as de facto norm. She was clearly out of her element: there was no fiery call to action in her voice, little hope of confronting the demons that eat away at our soul as a nation, less urge to be proactive in seeking our rights as citizens of a democratic state. All this was replaced by calm and cautious advice on how to go about seeking legal recourse to many of the social wrongs, with the unhappy observation that most such cases today were being settled out of court, through harassment brought about by the more affluent party or by the police acting at the latter’s behest (and let’s not just blame bribery and corruption here).

She explained that lawyers faced threats and were offered little protection as the pressure builds for an out of court settlement even in cases involving litigation where under the law out of court settlements are not permissible. Patiently she explained how in principle out of court settlements were bad in law even where the law so permitted, under the so-called Islamic provisions, particularly in criminal cases, including heinous crimes such as premeditated murder.

What she could not, again very unlike her, or would not say, was this: such laws have mixed up values of justice in society making a mockery of it and with it the rights of citizens in a democracy; and nobody seems to be bothered about it. To her credit, however, Jahangir eluded to the problem by saying that our legal system has become such that the rich can per force or otherwise buy out the poor murder victim’s heirs, while a poor criminal may languish in a death cell for committing the same crime and being unable to ‘buy’ his freedom.

Does a society with such intrinsically flawed laws on the statutes have any hope of ever dispensing justice? A legal system that sanctions a crime as heinous as cold-blooded murder to be treated as a dispute between two parties, the perpetrator and the victim, instead of crime against society as a whole and thus the state, has little sense of justice left in it. It is not the abuse of the so-called Islamic laws but the very way these laws are framed, which leaves them open to rampant abuse.

In societies that have removed medieval laws from their statutes in favour of those that dispense justice as seen to be done by modern sensibilities, even an attempt to murder is a crime against the state (and humanity, not the individual). Hence the conviction of Aafia Siddiqi in America, whereas under Pakistan’s Sharia laws, Raymond Davis was able to buy his freedom even after killing two citizens in broad daylight. His accomplice, another US embassy staffer, walked away from murder totally gratis, after having run over an innocent man in the street. While in the latter case the state can be accused of not pursuing the killer under pressure from the US, in Davis’s case justice was actually dispensed under Pakistani law.

“Thousands,” Asma Jahangir pointed out on public TV, thus walk away with murder and other serious crimes in a similar manner virtually every day in Pakistan. What then to speak of one’s democratic rights, being dispensed justice one of them.

Is there any redemption in sight from this self-destructive mode the country has been put on and abandoned? The hope to create awareness amongst people is dashed by raging intolerance and the violence practised by extremists to silence those who beg to differ with them. Amidst all this we have leaders who call for revolution to seek social justice.

Would such leaders, like Imran Khan and Altaf Hussain, for instance, actually call for scrapping all such unjust laws that dispense patent injustice? Imran Khan will do no such thing because he endorses ‘jirga’ justice, or swift tribal law, that in many cases acts on similar principles as do Pakistan’s Sharia laws. Why Altaf Hussain won’t do it is beyond comprehension, especially when he doesn’t have to fear being killed in the streets of Pakistan like Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and before them Benazir Bhutto.

It is time politicians stopped chasing the elusive panacea in its myriad forms, from the clichéd Sharia laws to seeking an end of feudalism and corruption; even democracy and provincial autonomy and a free judiciary, for no such cure-all exists. Issues need to be tackled head on, one by one, and the people have the right to know which of their politicians is willing to start doing that before they tire of the little democracy that exists today and start looking at the khakis again.

Murtaza Razvi is the Editor, Magazines, at Dawn.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.