Justice and impunity

A series of high-profile cases have highlighted fundamental flaws in our criminal justice system

Justice and impunity


ike many other countries, the criminal justice system in Pakistan consists of three major components – police courts, and correction. The police are mainly charged with the responsibility of investigating, arresting the suspects and collecting evidence about crime and criminals. The courts system is presided over by judges, who listen to the prosecutors, examine the evidence, interpret the laws and decide the punishment. Correction includes the detention of the accused in prisons before the trial and their subsequent confinement.

Under our constitutional scheme, law and order is a responsibility of the provinces that discharge it through their provincial governments. In the provinces, the criminal justice system is managed through the Home and Prosecution Departments. The responsibility of the federation is concurrent to the provinces and extends to federally administered territories.

One does not need a law degree to realise that the criminal justice system is not functioning well. A series of high-profile cases reported during the last two years have highlighted some fundamental flaws in our criminal justice system.

We have witnessed the bereaved seeking justice for the brutal beheading of a 27-year-old daughter. We have also seen a senior police officer implying that the victim was to blame for being ‘out after dark’. A death penalty awarded in 2013 can be converted into life imprisonment in 2019 and an acquittal in 2022.

Our television channels and social media feeds carry complaints of inordinate delays in the registration of first information reports (FIRs), victim blaming by law enforcement agencies, judicial backlog, inadmissibility of evidence obtained through technological means and the failure to provide resource-backed victim support. Our criminal justice system is burdened with the legacy of the colonial rule. There is a dire need to introduce holistic reform in procedural and substantive laws for a better administration of criminal justice.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government had proposed nearly 700 amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, the Qanoon-i-Shahadat, 1984, the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 and other laws to improve the efficiency and delivery of criminal justice. Then prime minister Imran Khan had emphasised that these amendments would ensure access to and dispensation of speedy justice and better protection of the marginalised groups of the society. A nine-month deadline was proposed for the completion of criminal trials. It was proposed that no criminal trial be adjourned for more than three days. Amendments were also proposed to Article 164 of the QSO to allow evidence obtained through modern devices.

Recently, through a majority judgment, the apex court has issued guidelines to trial courts for deciding criminal cases, concerning common intention/ object, in future. Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi observed that trial courts were under obligation to fulfill the requirement to frame the charge, while minutely looking into the contents of crime report, statement of prosecution witnesses and other documents appended with the challan, with an intent to evaluate whether a criminal act as disclosed had in fact been committed, in furtherance of joining hands, etc.

Even though such efforts are laudable, the desired overhaul of our criminal justice system is still awaited. The grim reality is that Pakistan ranks 167 out of 170 countries on the Global Women, Peace and Security Index, and 130 out of 139 countries on Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project. Media reports indicate that there has been an alarming surge in violence against women. 63,367 cases of gender-based crime were reported during the last three years.

A fragmented approach to revamp the criminal justice system has been adopted from time to time. Budgetary priorities must be reordered to give greater emphasis to criminal justice. An adequately staffed judicial system capable of coping with current case load can produce revenue in the form of fines and costs, which offsets all or most of the cost of operating them. Even disregarding the financial benefit, speedy justice should be recognised as a vital means of avoiding lawlessness.

No criminal justice system is better than the people responsible to ensure that it functions. Our collective energies must be rationalised to combat the triumvirate of ignorance, lack of accountability and corruption.

There is a pressing need for the state to become a party to every criminal case, for every crime is a crime against the state; to provide the necessary education and training to facilitate fair and speedy dispensation of criminal justice; to move forward and protect the fundamental rights of its children, women and public at large; and to tackle the culture of impunity in order for justice to prevail.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Law from the University of California, Berkeley.  He can be contacted at aitzaz@berkeley.edu

Justice and impunity