We are ready to lay down lives (jaan bhee hazir hai) for the honour of the companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Malik Ishaq said after he was freed from jail amid Kalashnikov-wielding supporters on a Land Cruiser motorcade. He did not specify whose lives he was talking about. But the Shia know.
The influential co-founder of a Sipah-e-Sahaba breakaway group now linked with al Qaeda and the Taliban received a stipend from the Punjab government while he was in jail, and like other key terror suspects, was allowed to use a mobile phone.
Malik Ishaq had told an Urdu daily in October 1997 that he was involved in the killing of 102 people. He was arrested the same year, and eventually charged with 70 of those murders in 44 different cases, including the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009. Last week, the Supreme Court released him because of “lack of evidence”.
Among those who fear the consequences is Fida Hussain Ghalvi, a key witness in a case in which Ishaq was accused of killing 12 members of a Shia family during a Majlis in 1997. When Ghalvi and three other men identified Ishaq, he told them in front of a judge that “dead men can’t talk”. Five witnesses and three of their relatives were killed during the trial. Ishaq was acquitted because of “lack of evidence”.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. A more remarkable case involving the anti-Shia leader from southern Punjab was the bombing of an Iranian culture centre in Multan, also in 1997. Eight people were killed. When investigating officer Ijaz Shafi persuaded two witnesses to appear in court, his car was sprayed with 13 bullets. Anti-Terrorism Court judge Bashir Ahmed Bhatti convicted Ishaq but the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2006 because of “lack of evidence”.
In March 2007, the same judge, scheduled to hear another case against Malik Ishaq, was on his way to the court when a remote-controlled bicycle bomb exploded near his car, killing his driver and two policemen. Ishaq was charged with planning the bombing. Two years later, the prosecution’s witnesses suddenly turned hostile. Ishaq was acquitted in April 2009, because of “lack of evidence”.
In that context, it is very surprising that one of the Supreme Court judges who released Malik Ishaq on bail last week scolded the prosecution and said the case was weak. The same judge, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, was part of a Lahore Hight Court bench that had asked the police to close down cases of hate speech and incitement to violence, against Jamaatud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed. The bench would simply not accept that Jamaatud Dawa was another name for Lashkar-e-Taiba, because the new name was not present on a certain list.
Malik Ishaq praised the Supreme Court after his release and said justice had been done. And that is ironic. Why do these people refer to the modern secular notions of law and justice when they do not believe in them? Because that is what gives them a decisive advantage. They have access to multiple epistemic devices. They can identify and exploit weak spots in our legal structure from outside, while simultaneously carrying out practices that are only justified in their own context. And that is why they are winning.
The state and its judiciary, on the other hand, insist on upholding the singular letter of law. They believe that is justice. But justice must question itself. Why should we abide by laws when dealing with people who simply do not believe in those laws? Why should we allow them the privileges of our legal system when they are fighting to replace it with their own?
Harris Bin Munawar is a media and culture critic and a news editor at The Friday Times.