The futility of justice: Was the movement in vain?

Published: April 23, 2011
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We may have seen the return of the chief justice, but ‘justice’ has still not been delivered.

The lawyers’ movement that began three years ago was supposed to restore justice and fairness to the Pakistani judicial system with the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been so unceremoniously dumped from his position by then president, General Pervez Musharraf.

But, while Chaudhry returned to his former office, justice it seems got lost somewhere along the way.

After nine torturous years, Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang raped and assaulted on the orders of the village council of where she lived, witnessed five of the six accused freed by the Supreme Court (SC).

A desperate end to a harrowing saga that began in 2002, when the village elders of a tribal court ordered the rape as punishment for the adulterous relations of Mai’s younger brother with a woman from a rival clan.

Mai was visibly distraught after the verdict was announced and suggested that the release of the men threatened and endangered her life and that of her family. Still, as testament to her bravery and courage, she pledged to remain in her village and carry on with her work running a school for girls and an NGO which she founded after the incident.

‘At least one accused was not released’

Apologists of the verdict claim mitigating circumstances in order to fend off the scorn and outrage that it has inevitably invited. Mai, they say, was defended by one of the finest lawyers in the country and the supreme figurehead of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan and in stark contrast to most cases in Pakistan, her case passed through the courts relatively swiftly.

Further, given the fact that Pakistani law treats victims of rape more like suspects than injured parties, the SC ought to be applauded for, at the very least, acknowledging that a crime was committed by upholding the sentence against one of the accused. In the very pages of this newspaper, Nadir Hasan, argued that the problem is not with the judges but runs far deeper than that.

He writes:

“The problem is purely institutional… with Mukhtaran Mai, the police in her village of Meerwala refused to register her case for several days after she was raped… That delay torpedoed her chances of a fair hearing and ensured that a miscarriage of justice was the most likely outcome.”

Not only that, he adds that Pakistan’s parallel justice system must also carry a significant portion of the blame given that the various different courts contradict and contravene each other and only serve to hinder the judicial process.

Honour crimes and justice

While all that might be true, the upholders of the law cannot be so easily exonerated. Honour killings and rape cases have historically been poorly investigated by the police and all too often have gone unpunished by the courts. In Mai’s case, would it have been too much of a stretch for the judges of the SC to deliver a more damning verdict. In the face of such overwhelming evidence and the fact that the conviction was upheld by the Federal Shariah Court suggests that there was more than just the constraints of the country’s Hudood Laws that influenced the decision making of the judges.

One may choose to recall the case of the blind servant girl, Safia Bibi, who in the 1980s was notoriously sentenced to fifteen lashes for the crime of becoming pregnant following a multiple rape. The perpetrators went unpunished because of “a lack of evidence” and the pregnancy itself was entirely ignored. The steadfast upholding of the pernicious blasphemy law has also resulted in numerous travesties over the years.

Judiciary penetrated

The courts have long been criticised for pandering to the whims of the religious right especially in cases which are of a religious nature. The hero’s welcome, Salman Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri received from the lawyers and the subtle acclaim of his actions by some judges, certainly suggests that Pakistan’s legal institutions have been infiltrated by the firebrand politics and hard line views of the extremist fringe.

The judiciary in Pakistan is not merely a slave to Pakistan’s Penal Code. It is, to a certain extent, straitjacketed by far too many insidious tenets. But even then, the depressing truth is that all too often it is a sordid collaborator.

When justice is not done even when the circumstances and evidence allow for it, then there is surely no excuse.

In March 2009, we may have seen the return of the chief justice, but ‘justice’ has still not been delivered.

Usman Ahmad

Usman Ahmad

A British freelance writer and photographer based in Pakistan. His worked has been published with Foreign Policy Magazine, The Huffington Post and The National among others. He tweets @usmanahmad_iam (twitter.com/UsmanAhmad_iam?lang=en) and you can see his work on his website usman-ahmad.com.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.