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Sunday July 14, 2024

The affluenza contagion

By Mir Adnan Aziz
October 26, 2022

Rule of law is a cornerstone of democracy. It is also a foolproof safeguard against selective justice or certain groups and individuals meting out extreme excesses, itself a stark manifestation of tyranny.

Affluenza is a blend of the words ‘affluent’ and ‘influenza’. Coined by Fred Whitman in 1954, it was used to describe the effects on children born into power and wealth. In Pakistan, this affliction extends beyond individuals. The concept contended that entitled lives fostered an inability to understand the consequences or fallout of negative actions. Over the years, affluenza has become a carte blanche here for the powerful to perpetrate crimes without fearing the consequences. This preventable malady has taken root and germinated into a lethal monstrosity rending the national fabric apart.

Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old from Texas, had been binge drinking and taking Valium at a party. Driving away and over-speeding in a 40mph speed zone, he killed four pedestrians. Sergio Molina, a 16-year-old friend accompanying him, suffered a serious brain injury. Confined to a wheelchair, Molina can now neither speak nor move.

Ethan’s prosecutors asked for a 20 year prison sentence. Dr Dick Miller, a psychologist, testified that Couch was a victim of affluenza. Shockingly, the judge accepted the defence and sentenced Couch to probation in a facility with yoga and cooking classes. This judgment sent shockwaves throughout the US with people voicing their disbelief and outrage at the verdict.

By protecting the powerful and wealthy, the spirit of blood money law is totally negated by our criminal justice system. The accused intimidate and coerce the affected families into compromises, pardons and in accepting blood money by threatening them. The dice is loaded against those affected even as they lodge the FIR; the very first step for seeking justice. This is compounded by a totally politicized, archaic and non-professional investigation and prosecution system that, willfully or otherwise, leaves loopholes ensuring that criminals go scot-free.

The recent exoneration of Shahzeb Jatoi and his henchmen is not a one off case. It is a steady stream of those accused of white collar crime and murder walking away because of their hallowed affluenzic status. The infamous Raymond Davis saga also proved that compromises are accepted, how they are coerced does not even ruffle a feather of our criminal justice system.

In its 2021 index, the World Justice Project ranked Pakistan 130 out of 139 countries in adherence to rule of law. The Georgetown Institute’s Women Security Index ranks Pakistan at 150 among 153 countries. An indicator is the abysmal conviction rate of 0.3 per cent since 2015 in over 22,000 rape cases and only four medico-legal officers in Karachi with over 56,000 street crimes reported in 2022 alone.

Like all state institutions, our justice system too has failed Pakistan. It has also encouraged tyranny by validating and legalizing dictators. Since antiquity, justice has been sought after and propagated. Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice, is often portrayed as blindfolded while carrying a perfectly balanced scale and a sword. The blindfold symbolizes impartiality; the balanced scales show harmony in evidence and judgment while the sword represents the power to administer justice. Justice may be blind in the abstract but here it has systemic flaws that render it prone to selective blindness.

Al-Adl, one of the names of the Almighty, has been repeatedly emphasized upon and mandated in the Holy Quran. Justice is one of the greatest attributes of Islam. Verse 4:135 of Surah Al-Nisaa reads: “Believers, be upholders of justice and bearers of witness to truth for the sake of Allah, though it may be against yourselves, your parents or your close relatives. Be they rich or poor, Allah is best to ensure their interests. Do not, then, follow your own desires lest you keep away from justice”.

Absence of rule of law compounded by the impunity that the affluenza contagion breeds has immensely widened the already existing chasm between the haves and have-nots of Pakistan.

In the land of the pure, the powerful, wealthy and pedigreed continue to make a mockery of rule of law with utter disdain.

Ironically, it was the likes of Honorable Justices’ Alvin Cornelius, Dorab Patel and Rana Bhagwandas who, with their lifelong impeccable conduct, epitomized the all-important teachings of justice, humanity and humility as mandated by Islam.

The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at miradnanaziz@gmail.com