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Sunday May 22, 2022

Where the buck stops

January 28, 2022

It is a known reality that a society cannot survive, much less progress, without a speedy and equitable dispensation of justice. Unfortunately, in this country, such a thought even is fast becoming a nightmare.

What makes it worse is that, while the rich and the powerful have ample access to their brand of ‘justice’, none of the commodity is available for the poor and marginalised communities. It is not this or that judge that one is talking about. It is the entire judicial system which appears to be in serious disarray both in terms of substance and direction. More so, by not delivering, it has become a massive hurdle in the way of the state establishing its writ to give people a reason to cultivate and sustain hope.

A host of incidents that happened in the near-to-distant past within the ambit of the institution are neither inspiring nor elevating. Instead, they are reflective of a degenerative syndrome that strangled it early during its lifetime to adversely impact its future functioning. The long history of injunctions accumulated over decades has been belittling of the institution’s stature as one of the three pillars on which the state edifice stands. It cast dark shadows on its credibility which have only lengthened with time.

In the process, the precedents which have been set will continue to simmer and plague the institution, thus grievously denting people’s trust in it being the custodian of justice as also of their inalienable rights as equal citizens of the country. Be it the role of the judiciary in being the original inventor of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ which paved the way for a sequence of dictators to legitimise their take-overs, or the tradition of pandering to orders from political masters to tamper with decisions one way or the other, or be compromised by briefcases of cash distributed on behalf of perpetrators to impede the flow of justice, these have generated deep-set negativity about the institution which may take generations to erase.

Then there is the majority decision regarding the award of capital punishment to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Hudaibya Paper Mills case where self-confessed criminals were allowed to walk away free, and scores of other similar injunctions or forfeitures which coloured the judiciary black. But the decision of the full bench of the Supreme Court that a judge cannot be held accountable has damned the very concept of justice in the country. How can one even think that a person who is empowered for dispensing justice will be beyond the pale of accountability? How can the conduct of the judiciary in not holding a fellow judge to account be upheld?

In Pakistan, such a tradition has been set – which will be emulated in the future with impunity with judges raised to the stature of people that can think no wrong and do no wrong. This may, in course of time, require an amendment in the statute book to formally indemnify the community from all forms of accountability.

There is also this scourge of granting stay orders to the rich and powerful which may linger to perpetuity, thus repudiating the essence and spirit of justice and causing immeasurable loss to the state exchequer. According to recent reports submitted by regulators, there are 800 stay orders currently in force from different courts of law secured by various cartels. An amount of Rs250 billion has been stuck because of ongoing litigation in this regard. According to the FBR, cases pertaining to an amount of Rs2500 billion are pending due to litigation because of grant of stay orders. In addition to that, 19,000 customs-related cases are also pending involving billions of rupees. As a consequence, the country continues to suffer due to the theft of the powerful. On what count can the grant of a multitude of stay orders be justified, which restrict the working of state institutions to collect the much-needed funds, as also an efficient and speedy disposal of justice?

In more recent times, the handling of cases involving known and established mafias has left much to be desired. The speed at which hearings have been conducted may require years for the ultimate disposal of these cases and accountability of looters and plunderers. One understands that the political survival of these family dynasties depends on the outcome of these cases and they have staked all their resources and influence to escape the dragnet of justice, but that should be of no consequence for the courts. They should only be concerned about a speedy and just disposal of all such cases which would only be ensured through day-to-day hearings. Furthermore, the sword of contempt hangs over the heads of those who may dare to differ.

The objective of compiling all this is not to point an accusing finger at any individuals of the judicial system. It is also not to berate one institution or the other. All institutions have had their failings. They have all erred. There comes a time when all this has to end. That time is now.

The objective is to highlight the centrality of the judiciary in matters pertaining to the state, more specifically in the disposal of justice strictly in accordance with the strictures contained in the statute book. If a perception gains ground among people that justice is hostage in the hands of the mafias and cartels, it can defeat the concept of all being equal before law which can lead to grave consequences for the future of the state as the custodian of the rights of people, more specifically those of the poor and the marginalised communities.

They are the ones born with a disadvantage. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that such a disadvantage does not become a life-long stigma. In certain circumstances, the state must intervene on the side of the poor and against the powerful mafias and cartels. But it cannot do this without unstinted support of the judiciary. Unless that is ensured, the state would continue to come across as an unkind and unjust monolith beyond the reach of the suffering multitudes.

Initiating the task of institutional reform has become the need of the hour. The judiciary has to play a pivotal role in the success of this effort. Unless the rich and powerful mafias are brought within the ambit of law, ‘justice’ will remain a meaningless word.

It is with the judiciary that the buck stops. It is time to wake up from a deeply induced slumber before the state is overwhelmed by the incorrigible lust of these blood-sucking worms.

The writer is the special assistant to the PM on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute. He tweets @RaoofHasan

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