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Pakistan's top court struggles to deliver justice


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Muhummed Ihtisham, 30, a taxi driver, displays pictures of his wife and children during an interview with Reuters in Peshawar August 14, 2012. Ihtisham petitioned the Peshawar High Court after his wife was tortured to death and their two toddlers thrown off a building in December but the case has been adjourned three times since because the paperwork was not ready.– Reuters

ISLAMABAD: Each day, the Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court confronts a stack of blue folders stuffed with desperate pleas from residents claiming that corrupt police, inept prosecutors or moribund lower courts have failed them.

The files detail heinous crimes, of newlyweds axed to death, children kidnapped and even an unsolved case of a young woman burned alive.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has won acclaim for punishing wrong-doers or delivering justice in a few well-publicised cases. But rather than staunching the flow, his interventions have unleashed a torrent of new claims as his court emerges as a beacon of hope in a corrupt and dysfunctional justice system.

“People think the government is not functioning, so the Supreme Court becomes the recourse,” said lawyer Salman Raja.

This year, the Supreme Court has received more than 140,000 petitions, a more than 300-fold increase from the 450 petitions received seven years ago, according to court data obtained by Reuters. The court does not compile statistics showing how many petitions resulted in successful prosecutions.

Chaudhry's activism has established him as hero for many and turned the judiciary into a power centre in Pakistan's young democracy that has been ruled by the military for more than half its 65-year history.

But the deluge also highlights the struggle to build national institutions in a country of 180 million people that is beset by Taliban violence, daily power cuts and widespread poverty.

Chaudhry's defenders say he is the last hope for people abandoned by their leaders.

Critics contend his unique brand of activism has pitted the Supreme Court against civilian and military leaders, distracting attention from the urgent task of reforming a broken judiciary.

System in Crisis

The Supreme Court has about 20,000 cases pending and there is a backlog of about 1.4 million cases nationally, according to a US State Department report.

If cases reach any Pakistani court, only 5-10 per cent results in a conviction, according to a 2010 report by the International Crisis Group on reforming the justice system.

Prosecutors are underpaid and overwhelmed and judges rely almost entirely on oral statements rather than physical evidence.

The system's shortcomings are vast. Investigators typically work on 30-40 cases at a time.

Most police are poorly trained and officers have few opportunities for promotion, providing little motivation to solve cases, the Asia Society think-tank concluded in a report published in July.

Torture is common in interrogations because many police are not taught any other method, it added.

“Witnesses are scared to go to court,” said Hassan Abbas, a former policeman who edited the Asia Society report.

“There's extra-judicial killings, people are taking the law into their own hands.”

Against this bleak backdrop, victims increasingly cling to hope that Chaudhry will take up a legal cudgel on their behalf, but the top court is overwhelmed and results have been mixed.

In the imposing white marble headquarters of the Supreme Court in the capital, Islamabad, a team of young men working in the Human Rights Cell sorts through thousands of petitions stacked on desks and chairs.

Most are handled by lower officers, but about 20 per cent are serious enough to land on Chaudhry's desk.

“If people don't get justice, society turns into a jungle,” warned Qammaruddin Bohr, the new head of the unit.

Chaudhry personally intervened in a case after police took no action when relatives of Tasslem Solangi were accused of setting hungry dogs on a 17-year-old girl, then shooting her dead over inheritance. He ruled the police had been criminally negligent and ordered Solangi's uncle and others arrested.

But since then, her case has languished for five years in the lower courts and her family has gone into hiding, fearful of some of those accused who are now free on bail.

“I have no hope for justice,” one relative told Reuters by phone before quickly hanging up, underscoring that even the Supreme Court has limits to what it can deliver.

Pugnacious Judge

Chaudhry is best known in Pakistan for standing up to former military leader Pervez Musharraf. Black-robed lawyers in ties and waistcoats battled police in 2007 over Musharraf's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hold on to the presidency.

Since then, Chaudhry has become a central figure in Pakistani politics. This June, he dismissed former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for refusing to re-open a corruption case against the president.

The Supreme Court has intervened on issues from sugar prices to energy policy and the promotion of state employees - decisions usually made by other officials.

But Babar Sattar, a columnist, recently wrote that the court was “self-righteous, egotistical” and devoid of a vision for reform.

In June, Chaudhry intervened in corruption allegations against his son and received a reprimand from Pakistan's attorney general.

Chaudhry's decision to call an inquiry after a well-known television actress was found with two bottles of wine at Islamabad airport - an offense for a Muslim in Pakistan - fed accusations that he is prone to populist grand-standing.

Judges Emboldened

Chaudhry's activism has set the tone for other senior judges. Provincial high courts are hearing more petitions but running up against the same congested legal machinery.

Taxi driver Muhummed Ihtisham's case shows both the courts' reach and their limits.

He petitioned the Peshawar High Court after his wife was tortured to death and their two toddlers thrown off a building in December.

Police had named Ihtisham as a suspect on the word of his wife's family. But the High Court ordered police to investigate, and they discovered phone records implicating his accusers.

Five of Ihtisham's in-laws were charged. Their case opened in August in a tiny court in the town of Mardan outside Islamabad. The case has been adjourned three times since because paperwork was not ready.

Ihtisham said his wife's wealthy, politically connected family wanted revenge for the couple's elopement five years earlier. They deny the charges.

"They have money. I don't. They have contacts. I don't. I just have a petition. I have no other option," said Ihtisham as he stared at photographs of his family's bodies.

"This has destroyed my whole world," he said.

With each blue folder placed on Chaudhry's desk, the expectations on the Supreme Court grow.

The court says it is cutting the backlog of cases, but many fear the gap between hope and reality in Pakistan is only widening.

"People are losing hope in the justice system," said Abbas, the former police officer. "They are losing hope in democracy."

Comments (31) Closed Sep 25, 2012 11:25am
Justice delayed is justice denied........wonder why there is no voice from civil liberty/ civil right groups......
rashid Sep 25, 2012 11:40am
I believe CJ is busy doing politics instead of justice. The way he tarnished the image of SC is unheard of in our 65 years of national history. It will take some time and serious damage control before people will start believing in real justice again.
EmMoosa Sep 26, 2012 03:02pm
I am living in the West. I have not seen any report like this what Mr. Khan has disclosed herein.
Omer Muhammad Sep 26, 2012 05:50am
Their are thousands of such cases lying in the courts. Justice is still not reached to innocent people which is responsibility of courts and government. Our Nation needs sincere people.
khanm Sep 26, 2012 11:07am
This report saya it all "The Supreme Court has about 20,000 cases pending and there is a backlog of about 1.4 million cases nationally, claims report." Action speeks louder than words....
EmMoosa Sep 26, 2012 03:05pm
If the CJP and his "9 ratans" are engaged to fight with the administration on non issues how people of pakistan will get justice. They should place their home in order first then go against the wrong doings of the government.
saghar Sep 26, 2012 11:04am
well said adeel!!
Shukur Jan Sep 27, 2012 03:51am
Seedoo, u just look through the biased eye of the media. Please see it for yourself that he is doing many many other things which you don't see because media doesn't want u to see. What about prosecutes and police. Without tools and funding no one can function!!!!!!!!
Shukur Jan Sep 27, 2012 03:52am
Ihtesham Sep 27, 2012 05:09am
Chief Justice is the only hope for down trodden of Pakistan. First time in Pakistan big fish have been put hand on. Dual nationality case, NRO, money laundering, ephedrine and many contempt of court cases against the elite is a good sign for Pakistan future.
Observer Sep 26, 2012 01:09am
Judiciary is like other failed institutions of Pakistan. It constitutes self serving judges with little or no vision to improve conditions.
aku Sep 25, 2012 10:50am
I am heart-broken after reading this article. It is a sad state of affairs. Had there been justice, half of the politicians ruling the country would be in jails. Funny that we want to claim ourselves as defenders of Islam but inside we are not even humans. We need a tehreek, a tehreek for insaaf!
Seedoo Sep 25, 2012 01:03pm
Mr. Iftikhar Chaudhry is too busy asking whoever the PM is at the moment in Pakistan to write a love letter to the Swiss authorities. As if there is nothing better to do!
noman chaudhry Sep 25, 2012 01:14pm
be rational and understand that the justice system depends on good prosecution. Unless and until and prosecution system is revamped and prosecutors are independently elected/ appointed like in the USA. Even if u bring angels to administer justice, they wont be able to do it. How u can punish a corrupt person when ur prosecutor/ attorney general says we dont have evidence against him or he is prone to pressure from powerful persons!
imran Sep 25, 2012 03:47pm
It is the law of the jungle that prevails here or may be even the inhabitants of jungle will take exception to this analogy since they do have at least law of jungle!!!!!!!
Akhter Husain Sep 25, 2012 01:15pm
No need to wonder.Judiciary is very busy in resolving the matters of national importance,that is ,running the affairs of state.They will take notice of JUSTICE once the present assignment is over.
A. Khan Sep 26, 2012 01:17am
Whether you like it or not, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is highly respected here in the Western World. He is a human being; he has weaknesses, but he is widely seen to be a man of principle. In contrast, the government and the police are believed to be utterly corrupt.
Akhter Husain Sep 25, 2012 01:24pm
As a student I had heard my teachers saying that "Jis ka kaam ussi ko sajhe".Our stalwarts connected with judicial system are bent up on to prove this old saying all wrong,.OK it is fine but do justice to job judiciary has taken over.I will pray for their success.
Khanm Sep 25, 2012 01:46pm
wonder when that is going to be????? its a big question mark
Akhter Husain Sep 25, 2012 01:08pm
No need to wonder.The judiciary is extremely busy in matters of national importance,that is, running the state.Let them their job..
Muhammad Salim Sep 25, 2012 01:10pm
Totally agree with you, five years have been wasted on political cases while the genuine and real cases of common Pakistanis got no relief.
Ali Abbas Sep 26, 2012 02:59pm
CJ must start by cleaning his own house first. There is no problem with taking suo moto cases in certain urgent matters but his selective style of following law has created more problems in Pakistan. Judiciary should clean their house and military should focus on defending pakistan and not playing politic. Our political leader both in power and opposition need to start focusing on effective govt but should be given some breathing room to do this. Corruption in a problem for all Pakistanis and all pakistanis should take a good look at their own behaviour and not blame govt for all their problems. And for God's sake media (both print and visual) need to grow up, less focus on circus like talk shows and focus on educating people also and provide them with balanced view of civic duties and religion etc.
ali Sep 26, 2012 03:48am
Pakistan`s courts are in disarray , the CJ and his team are doing the best they can but the government is not cooperating with the SC by not providing them extra budget and extra staff many of the cases can be handled by the lower courts but these courts are still corrupt and they also do not have enough staff. Besides new jails need to be built as the present jails are over crowded and there should be reforms in the police department ASAP. This government is incapable of improving anything, if the nation elects a new and better team in the next election then perhaps we may see vast improvements.
EmMoosa Sep 26, 2012 03:18pm
Good dream.
EmMoosa Sep 26, 2012 03:14pm
True. It can not be said more. Departure of Musharraf have brought them as new pressure groups. All unfortunate for the nation and the country.
EmMoosa Sep 26, 2012 03:25pm
UN team had to enter in the country to find out the status of the missing persons and CJP refused to meet them because he did not like to be opened to the world for his kind of "justice".
EmMoosa Sep 26, 2012 03:28pm
"The Supreme Court has about 20,000 cases pending and there is a backlog of about 1.4 million cases nationally, according to a US State Department report". Do you need something else what is the true picture of our justice system at present.
jamal Sep 26, 2012 12:22pm
my dad is embrolied in a court case for over 10 years. Qabza group in punjaib (lahore) . For week after week the opposition doesnt even show up , they have also stated infront of the judge that their own lawyer is not representing them ,all delaying tactics . The judge doesnt do anything. How can Khadim-e-alla Shabaz sharif even sleep at nights same goes with our chief justice.
Adeel Sep 26, 2012 10:03am
and Who are you Mr. Khan to represent Western World?? what statistics are available to confirm your statement??
Mustafa Razavi Sep 26, 2012 01:05am
I have no reason to believe that our judiciary or the lawyer community subscribes to any higher code of morals or ethics than our society at large. Same goes for our media.
Zishi Sep 25, 2012 09:24am
Its a universally known fact that there is no justice in Pakistan for a common man. Connections and bribe is the way to go in our beloved country.