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Saturday January 22, 2022

Noor Mukadam and the urgency of grief

August 28, 2021

The writer is a lawyer.

I used to think that adjectives that tried to describe profound grief and joy were equally barren. Like trying to draw a three-dimensional figure on a flat sheet of paper: condemned to a medium that couldn’t understand even if it tried. Streaks of ink masquerading as an ocean.

But trying to write about Noor’s death has convinced me otherwise. Having seen what Noor’s family has felt, joy and sorrow no longer seem opposite ends of the same spectrum. I have recognised happiness when it has been reduced to the written word. But if there are words that might capture the depths of what they have felt, I do not know them.

‘Tragic’, ‘Brutal’, ‘Depraved’ – pre-cooked placeholders swiped off the supermarket shelf. What words might one offer to describe what they have lived? And how might one even presume to, anyway? Describing the pain of another is about as futile as trying to describe a colour you have never seen. So why even try?

In any case, there are rules regulating how much lawyers can discuss cases that they have been connected to. So, while this piece retains its regular home in the ‘Opinion’ section, it cannot offer judgment. It can, however, attempt some form of general solace.

Because, while others may not have experienced what Noor’s loved ones have, there is still something there. Whether it is its blurry outline or another thing entirely, it is there – lurking in the shadows of in-between moments, and then flaring up all at once.

Call it grief, call it rage. Open your favourite social media apps and you will see a ravenous search for answers. “The case is open and shut”, they say. “Why have there been no convictions?”

The simple answer to all those questions is this: the trial hasn’t even begun yet.

While this case has brought many closer to the criminal justice system than any before, understanding it requires even more. So here is an attempt to explain a bit of it – in the hope that, if nothing else, it will help you understand how to contextualise what you are feeling and understand where and how far you will need to take it.

To stick only to facts that are public record: currently, the police are completing their investigation. After the police arrive at a crime scene, they take statements and collect evidence. Sometimes they require further statements. Some from witnesses, others from accused persons. The evidence must also then be processed: DNA samples and fingerprints need to be matched, digital forensics need to be run on electronic devices, and so on. All of this takes time. If new evidence emerges, it takes longer still.

But while these things take time anyway, they take even longer in Pakistan. To cite just one cause of routine delays, because all of that evidence is generally sent all the way to Punjab – which has one of the only functioning forensic facilities in the country. Because half of the rest of the country is also sending evidence to the same facility, this causes a backlog as everyone awaits their turn.

Once the police complete their investigation, they submit a 'challan' to the judge. Think of this as the official record that forms the basis of the case. The police have 14 days to submit it, but if the investigation isn't complete, that time is extended. The trial can't begin until after this has been submitted. This is all to say that, while delays in investigation justifiably concern people who are disillusioned with the whole system, they do not necessarily mean something is amiss. As you can imagine, the idea is to prepare a case that is as airtight as possible. Often, the case is just not ready for trial, yet.

One reason that people tend to believe that the trial is already underway is that they keep hearing of court dates and appearances by the parties and their lawyers. These, as you now know, aren’t the actual trial: they are remand and bail hearings. If the police require individuals for investigative purposes, they are kept in physical remand (at the thaana). If not – and bail isn’t granted – they are placed in judicial remand (jail). But just as these hearings aren’t the ‘actual trial’, judicial remand is not the same thing as 'serving time' in prison: that comes after the verdict.

Now let’s pause for a moment on bail – because this is something that causes many people much grief. Because the law presumes accused persons innocent until proven guilty, it generally does not detain people until after they are sentenced at trial. And so, they are allowed to leave on bail under the guarantee that they will cooperate whenever necessary.

The grant of bail does not equate to innocence. Consider reading that again and even passing it on to a friend. In fact, there are many offences where bail is granted simply because it is a right under the law. This even includes kidnapping, assault, or ‘mischief by fire or explosives’. In other instances, it is just the case that the allegations hold weight, but require ‘further inquiry’. When they are eventually proven at trial, prison time follows. Even so, bail can be denied where the individual is considered likely to flee, repeat the crime, tamper with evidence, or influence witnesses.

Now, to return to the timeline – all of this is, by no means, to say that every delay is justified. For instance, when the trial does eventually begin, repeated adjournments by the counsel or long gaps between dates are all very avoidable delays that must be taken seriously. The trial happens in the lower courts, but given an appropriate opportunity, a superior court might direct a case to be heard within a particular time or even day-to-day.

A trial can take three months, or even three years. But it doesn't just end at the trial. One guilty verdict doesn’t herald the convict’s happily never after. Even a guilty verdict with a death sentence can be (and often is) appealed at multiple levels. With a direction of that sort, from a superior court, we might even expect a final outcome within a year or so. Without it, who knows.

So, to be very clear, the takeaway from all of this is not to sit back and just hope things eventually work out. These are not excuses for anybody: describing a system is not the same thing as condoning it. There are certain things that only the police can do, certain things that only the courts can do, and certain things that only the prosecution and lawyers can do. Everyone must do their part as best as they can.

This palpable sense of urgency is a very natural reaction to living in a country where things always seem to be slipping away. Every day, another light goes out – a hundred dimensions reduced to a few words in the paper. And so that urgency is all the more important. The fact that it hasn’t died down yet is an incredibly rare blessing in a country that ought to be numb by now.

But let that urgency be buoyed by hope, not despondency. Justice will be neither bought nor sold. Your grief has not gone to waste. It is just that, while it has been sharp and it has been deep, it will also have to be sustained.

And at the end of it all – whether it is because of the system, or despite it – Noor Mukadam will get justice, yet.

Email: salaar.khan@columbia.edu

Twitter: @brainmasalaar

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