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Sectarian killers thrive under legal system

Published Feb 29, 2012 11:23am


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The bloodbath of Shia Muslims at the hands of fundamentalist Sunnis continues along the streets and roads in Pakistan. The Shia victims of sectarian violence have little hope for justice since three out of every four terrorism cases end up in an acquittal on technicalities.

Yesterday, Shias en route to their homes in Gilgit were removed from buses, lined up along the road, and shot in cold blood near Kohistan. Eighteen perished, while scores others were injured. Less than two weeks ago in Parachinar 43 Shias were killed in a bomb blast and subsequent firing by the security agencies. Eyewitness account reveals that the bomb was detonated remotely after it was placed on an empty cart in the Kurrami Bazaar by a person who disappeared in the same hotel where security forces were hosting reportedly “internally displaced people.”

While the convoy of buses near Kohistan was attacked by Jundallah, a sectarian outfit that thrives on murdering Shias, the attack in Parachinar was perpetrated by the supposedly “good Taliban”, who only recently were presented to the world as those who have renounced violence. However, killing Shias for the Taliban, both good and bad, is fair game.

Shias, however, have not been the only victims of violence in the past two weeks in Pakistan. Peshawar is experiencing a spell of murderous violence. A bomb blast at the Kohat Road bus stand killed 13 last Thursday. The very next day four policemen died in a coordinated attack on the fortified Kotwali police station by militants who blew themselves up during the attack. Yesterday, a Chinese woman and her guide were murdered in the centre of the Peshawar City. In the neighbouring city of Nowshera, six people were killed in a bomb attack after a political rally on Monday.

While the attacks on police and indiscriminate violence against civilians is equally reprehensible, the perpetrators of violence, however, are not attacking the victims for their religious, political, or any other beliefs. The attacks on Shias and other religious minorities are targeted killings primarily motivated by the bigoted religious intolerance exhibited by certain fundamentalist Sunni sects.

The State seems helpless in delivering justice even when it is successful in arresting those accused of terrorism. The path from arrest to conviction is punctuated with traps that capture the public prosecutors, but give a free pass to the accused. Several well-known terrorists have been acquitted by the anti-terrorism courts because of the flawed judicial system where errors and omissions during documentation, investigation and prosecution of the crimes have earned the accused their freedom who wasted no time in rejoining militant outfits.

When courts fail victims

During 1990 and 2009, the anti-terrorism courts (ATC) in Punjab alone failed to convict the accused in 74 per cent of the 311 cases in which a final verdict was delivered. Most of the accused were acquitted not because they were able to demonstrate and/or substantiate their innocence, but because the judicial system in Pakistan is not capable of handling terrorism cases where prosecution’s case rests on circumstantial and forensic evidence, and not on the eyewitness account.

A systematic review of 178 ATC verdicts by Syed Ejaz Hussain, who until recently served as the deputy inspector general of police for anti-terrorism in Punjab and also holds a doctorate in criminology from University of Pennsylvania, revealed that the courts acquitted the accused in 77 per cent of the cases. Most of the accused were apprehended for being involved in sectarian violence.

The review of cases revealed that errors, omissions, misconduct and the judicial system’s undue requirements during the registering of the complaint (first information report (FIR)), investigation of the crime, and prosecution lead to the acquittal in three out of four cases.

In 36 per cent of the cases, the courts acquitted the accused because they were not personally named in the FIR. This is an absurd requirement in terrorism cases. How can one ascertain the identity of the accused immediately after the terrorist attack when the FIR is registered? In most instances, FIRs are registered against unknown accused, which should not be the reason for the courts to acquit the accused because their identity was not known to the police or to the victims the very second the attack took place.

In 11 per cent of the cases, the courts have acquitted the accused because eyewitnesses could not put the accused at the crime scene. Again, an absurd requirement by the anti-terrorism courts. The dead victims of the terrorist violence cannot step out of their graves to identify the accused for the courts. The injured may have never seen the person/s detonating the bomb through a remote control device. Victims of sniper firing never know where the bullet has come from. Why then are the courts acquitting the accused because the eyewitnesses could not place them at the crime scene?

In another 17 per cent of the cases, the courts have acquitted the accused because the FIR registered soon after the incident either did not describe the unknown accused or his role in the crime.

It appears that the courts fail to appreciate the fact that perpetrators of terrorist violence are not immediately known to the victims or to the police. Their identities are ascertained much later as the case is investigated. Just because the accused have not been singled out in the first information report, which is filed immediately after the incident either by the victims or by the state, the courts should not necessarily acquit the accused, especially when other compelling circumstantial/forensic evidence is available to consider.

The review of the 178 cases further revealed that many cases were thrown out because of the shortcomings during investigation. In 35 per cent of the cases issues with the police line-up (identity parade) resulted in an acquittal. In some cases the witness failed to identify the accused in the line-up, while in other cases a police line-up was never put together. In 26 per cent of the cases, the recovered evidence was found unsatisfactory by the courts. For instance, the recovered evidence, such as the weapon used in the crime, did not match the weapon described by the forensic expert. In another 14 per cent cases, the confessional statements were not recorded adequately, which resulted in an acquittal. Excessive delays in submitting cases to the courts, improper recording of witness statements, and compromised medical or forensic evidence also resulted in acquittals.

The above suggests that there is an urgent need to train the investigators in modern detective work that now involves forensic scientists, and computer and communication experts. Furthermore, there is a need to have the public prosecutors and magistrates advise detectives so that the evidence collection procedures comply with the regulations set by the courts. For instance, there should never be a delay in presenting the accused in front of the courts. The public prosecutors are intimately aware of the repercussions of such delays, and hence they can advise the detectives of the legal requirements. In fact, the government may want to show episodes of shows, such as Law & Order, and CSI to the investigators in Pakistan so that they may learn about the intricacies of investigative work.

Lastly, missteps during prosecution have also resulted in acquittal of the accused. Most problems arise with witnesses who often change their testimony, fail to show up during the trial, offer contradictory testimony or settle with the accused. Most of the time the witnesses feel intimated by the accused and out of fear for their lives or that of their families, they refuse to bear witness. This suggests that there is an urgent need for a witness protection program in Pakistan to offer necessary safety to the witnesses in terrorism cases. In fact, the witness protection program may work only if the witnesses are settled abroad afterwards rather than having them settle in Pakistan where they will always be looking over their shoulders.

The Supreme Court and the press in Pakistan are pressuring the intelligence agencies in the missing person cases who have been accused of terrorist activities and have been secretly kept in custody by various intelligence agencies. The Supreme Court is well-placed to argue and stand for the rights of the accused, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

At the same time, it is also incumbent upon the higher courts and the press in Pakistan to be mindful of the fact that the accused in terrorism-related violence are most likely to be acquitted by the lower courts on technicalities. I understand and appreciate that due process matters.

However, the rights of the victims of terrorism matter as well. With the odds of conviction being less than one in four, the balance is tilted in favour of the accused rather than the victims of terrorist violence in Pakistan.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

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.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (34) Closed

Shakeel Feb 29, 2012 06:01pm
Are we really surprised considering the Law making authorities themselves are so biased and full of hatred. Did anyone hear about the recent Shezan case? How do you expect your juduciary to be fair?
Grieved Feb 29, 2012 06:03pm
I dont think that any shia killing a sunni or a sunni killing a shia. All this should be seen in the context of great game played by anti-muslim states to destabilise muslim countries. As they portrayed A shia ruler in syria against sunni's in syria or a sunni government in bahrain against shia's in bahrain. Even one can assess the case of named highjackers of 9/11 drama, who actually do not exist. Equally responsible for all this situation is the whole muslim ummah which is just asleep and falling in the traps of west.
S. javed Hussain Feb 29, 2012 06:31pm
It is matter of great relief that someone pointed out this madness being displayed in Pakistan so openly and yet a few can dare speak about it. i can only wish and pray that the authorities in Pakistan could see the bloodbath of Shia Muslims. Why there's always (mostly) Shias. There is hardly any shia I came in contact who did not suffer at the hands of these terrorists. May Allah swt give you courage to highlight such incidents.
Syed Arbab Ahmed Feb 29, 2012 06:57pm
Allah will judge 'SECTS' not us!!! Then why Sectarian violence?
Raza Feb 29, 2012 07:00pm
This is most common argument but some fraction of Sunni Muslims (like Sipah-e-Sahab, Lashkar Jhangvi, Jundullah etc. ) consider Shia Muslims kafir and killing them legitimate.
Jamal khan Feb 29, 2012 07:13pm
Glad to see that at least someone has tried to analyze this grave situation. the matter of the fact, however, is that in ninety percent of the cases of sectarian violence, it is a minority sect which is being targeted. The Lucuna pointed out in the report are invoked only in the cases involving victims of this minority sect. In this respect, the Sunni police, Sunni lawyer and Sunni judge all are sympathizer of the killer. Hence, no hope for justice remains for the victim.
Shazli Feb 29, 2012 07:28pm
I agree with your proposal regarding a Witness Protection Program. However, your suggestion that every witness in an anti-terrorism case be moved out of Pakistan is highly impractical. How about their family members. They should be moved out too? Moved to where?
Irfan Feb 29, 2012 07:49pm
I can recall the demonstration in front of Sind governor house a couple of months ago when thousands of people had to stage gathering throughout the night before the name of a banned organisation’s chief was included in the FIR. On one hand courts are looking for the names of accused person in FIR before they are sentenced, on the other hand victims can not put their names in the FIR. Unfortunately the only way to put the accused name in FIR is to demonstrate in front of governor house with thousands of people for the whole night..
Syed Feb 29, 2012 07:55pm
To some extent you are correct this has been one sided killing. It is mostly shia getting killed but now other people are not safe from the same group either. In the end those who are comitting these barbaric acts are from us.
Maaz Pasha Feb 29, 2012 08:01pm
What kind of comment is this???
ali abbas Feb 29, 2012 09:42pm
I am sad to say that this is exactly the kind of thinking that is preventing us from looking at our own fault. Muslims are killing other Muslims like savages and we keep deluding ourself that some "anti-muslim" and "foreign hand" is responsible for our shortcoming. No one is asking you to take any actions but atleast start with being honest to yourself. There is no boogey man out there its all us; that is we Pakistanis and Muslims.
R A Khan Feb 29, 2012 10:03pm
Those like you, who always blame the West for all the mess in our part of world, are the HYPOCRITES and responsible for the blood bath of innocent citizens. If the West were responsible, then why all the murderers are MUSLIMS and playing in the hands of others.
Sunil Feb 29, 2012 10:20pm
well-wisher Feb 29, 2012 10:55pm
My heart-felt sympathy to Shia and other minorities who are not only suffering at the hands of the terrorists but also not getting protection and justice from security forces and courts respectively.
Abbas Feb 29, 2012 11:01pm
No where in the Islamic world the sectarian problem is ripe until USA and its Allies reach there. Take it Iraq, Pakistani borders (where US forces are active) and now Syria. They plant the landmines of Sunni Shia Conflict. Muslims need to identify their common enemy before they eat us whole and they would eat without discrimination. We need to be aware of our Liberal brothers as well who are totally mesmerized by the glamour and fashionista' of the west let alone worry about narrow minded Mullah who screams from bottom of throat Kafir, Kafir Shia Kafir. First Identify and reject the ememy within.
Raza Feb 29, 2012 11:30pm
Whatever context you want to see in, in the end it is done by our own people and is all one sided. Same party is killing everyone whether they are sunni or shia as this group do not believe in tolerating even a minor difference. You can also see who is portraying it as sectarian issue in syria or bahrain, you will find that mainly one very influential muslim country is partnering with its western friends in incitment of oppression.
Naseer Rizvi Feb 29, 2012 11:37pm
A certain muslim sect is behind this. Their beliefs are that only they have the right to live, no one else. If they succeed in killing all shia's, they will go after sunni's. Shia's and sunni's have to unite and fight against them.
Suneera Rahman Mar 01, 2012 01:49am
we are second generation converts in south india. we have been told that all muslims irrespective of their boundaries are one. and islam is religion of peace,Now l
sabih Mar 01, 2012 02:42am
PLEASE PEOPLE.... Stop blaming anti-state actors, stop blaming the West for a grand scheme. Even if the West is doing all this, PEOPLE amongst US PAKISTANIS are taking the West's money to brainwash kids in madrassahs so as to kill people of other sects!! so please. stop blaming foreigners. people in our own country are currupt, or inept to fall prey to any Western conspiracy.... like Hasan Nisar said: No Jew, Christian, Sikh, Hindu attacks Muslim mosques/imambargahs. Its always a MUSLIM who kills a MUSLIM in Pakistan. WAKE UP and take action against those in Pakistan who are tools of the Western Conspiracy. Remove the tools, and the West will be helpless
Maqsood Mar 01, 2012 03:40am
@Grieved: Sir, the ruler of Syria is not Shia. He is from the Alawite sect.
Asif Mar 01, 2012 04:08am
Don’t just blame sunni's Mr. Haider. In recent times many of renowned sunni scholars were murdered but no one bothered to say a word about them. Similarly, many innocent people belonging to sunni sect have been killed every now and then. I belong to sunni sect and I never had any problem with my shia friends (and I have many) till I heard from the mouth of one of my good shia friend of what he (or shia) think about us and our believes. I still can’t believe it. Then I started listening myself of your Majalis and realized how idiot I was. The problem with we moderate sunni people is that we don’t sit in our majalis like shia’s. And you guys are taught right from the beginning how bad sunni are. I thank to that shia of opening my eyes otherwise I would still be an idiot. Now I am changed person altogether. You need to need think beyond sunni or shia problem and stop blaming sunni’s for every trouble my friend otherwise it’s never going to stop. First look at your camp what’s happening there and then criticise others.
Tanya Mar 01, 2012 07:09am
Oh Boy!
Abdul Rehman Hussein Mar 01, 2012 07:30am
We must stop blaming West or others for our woes and suffering. We need to attack religion-related problems head-on. We must find the root-cause why is this happening and take preventive action. Blaming West or India will not solve our routine problems. The problems is that we, ourselves, are among each other. we MUST be smart enough. But, please remember those who to madrsaah to study are not the smart guys. Normally, they are not good in the normal schools and the father will say "my son is not good in his studies and I have send him to madrassah to study". The best and intelligent students will study professional studies, like engineering, computer science, medicine, law. Those graduating from Madrasaah, who have low scope of thinking, control us (using Quran) and we become scare of their saying because we want to go heaven. "you will go to hell" is the threat that they normally used because they cannot reason or provide logical to their quotation of Quran. Another easy way out to kill innocent people. They also scare of females taking over and they will lose "face". So they say that women must stay at home and not work, and put on Arab-custom veil. They even do not understand that it is the female who give them birth.
Yawar Mar 01, 2012 07:41am
Excellent article about the reality of sectarian murders in the name of Islam. Your next article should be on the spread of lethal weapons and bombs in Pakistan.
Javed Mar 01, 2012 10:07am
It is very unfortunate that innocent people are being killed in the name of the religion. Islam, our religion, is the name and philosophy of peace, love, justice, fair play, compassion, humility, helpfulness and respect for the rights of every living creature (human beings, animals/birds and plants). Majority of the people (99%) including Sunis, Shias and other sects/faiths in Pakistan are peace loving people. Only a few people are terrorists and these evil people are violating every principle and foundation of Islam and trying to destroy our society and country. As individuals and as a society we need to condemns such barbaric acts and come together to ensure peace and stability in the country and defeat the forces of evil.
Abid ALi Mar 01, 2012 03:34pm
if you count total murderer cases in gilgit you will find more sunni killed by shia. in 2005 13 sunnies burnt alive in one case but media did not published. so all incidents are unfortunate.. we must condemn all not only one act
Saad Mar 01, 2012 03:53pm
Completely astonished as to why our supreme court wont take any suo moto notices regarding the current spate of Hate crimes against various religious organisations. There is no doubt that this is a political tool used to divert peoples attention from real issues but who is going to pay attention to these people who are suffering this senseless violence.
Masood Mar 01, 2012 05:50pm
Brothers, we have to unite against these bannded outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundullah and many more!! They not only kill Shias but also kill Sunni Barelvis. In fact, they kill anybody who does not agree to THEIR version of Islam. We HAVE TO UNITE against this madness. Only a handful of people are wreaking havoc in the whole country!
HM Mar 02, 2012 07:57am
Judiciary is sleeping, Electoral commission is not fair , police is biased... Politicians are corrupt. If we cannot run the country we can give it on lease to another country to run.
skandar Mar 02, 2012 11:03am
wonderfull and these facts are true brother
Pankaj Bose Mar 02, 2012 05:14pm
Now you know that you got it all wrong !
mzhkhan Mar 03, 2012 12:16pm
who does not agree to THEIR version of Islam ,the fact is they have nothing to do with Islam, complete apostate, even worst.
Shikoha Mar 04, 2012 04:16pm
dear Haider, I am very happy to see your Analysis and congratulate you to bring this subject to the world. I don't understand why these Fundamental Organisation is still alive in Pakistan. talking over the phone, in the media, on the net will not solve the problem. the only solution is - TIT for TAT. coz government is paralyses, court is for the namesake only and leaders are enjoying their rule at the cost of innocent people. I like Arab countries, specially UAE where you want to hit somebody for their behaviour but you can't touch coz you know the consequence. this should happen in Pakistan, if anybody kill anybody then the same person should brought to the justice and should be killed immediately.
Sam Apr 23, 2012 06:04pm
After more than two months online this article has zero comments! Unbelievable that in a newspaper swamped with user dialogue, conspiracy theories, politics and diatribe not a single person chooses to comment on this most basic issue; the failure of law enforcement. Here is a straightforward, EVIDENCE-based argument demonstrating how and why law enforcement fails in Pakistan. It would be an excellent starting point for a critical discussion toward practical solutions. Yet nobody seems to care. Or rather nobody has the willpower to do anything about it. This is such a fundamental shortcoming of Pakistani society (the absence of justice for the victims of murder) that it makes one feel utterly depressed and helpless.