Qisas, diyat and the laws of blood

Qisas, diyat provisions were re-promulgated by legislature 20 times, before being raised to Act of Parliament in 1997


Asad Rahim Khan November 30, 2015
The writer is a barrister and columnist based in Lahore. He studied law at the London School of Economics. He tweets @AsadRahim

Before he somehow dodged the terror of Cromwell, Matthew Hale, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, put down a list of “Things Necessary” to be remembered as a jurist. These have survived centuries, and make for sound advice today.

“If in criminals it be a measuring cast, to incline to mercy and acquittal,” Hale wrote. Yet he balanced this with another consideration, “In criminals of blood, if the fact be evident, then severity in justice.”

Key changes in Qisas, Diyat law proposed

But justice is far from reach when it comes to said criminals. Since their promulgation as an ordinance in 1990, the qisas and diyat provisions were re-promulgated by the legislature 20 times, before being raised to an Act of Parliament in 1997. Eighteen years on, the state’s proposing amendments at last, but it may be time we grasp how we sunk this low.



A word of thanks is due here to the National Commission on the Status of Women’s report on the subject, under Chairpersons Majida Razvi and Arfa Syeda Zehra; exhaustively researched by Syeda Viqar-un-nisa Hashmi. They have done all of us a service.

It all begins with a judgment authored by the Shariat Appellate Bench’s Justice Pir Karam Shah, with Justice Afzal Zullah in agreement (i.e., the same two gents that struck down land reform). The Court declared entire swathes of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) “repugnant” to faith.

3-2 majority verdict: Qisas, Ta’zir two distinct regimes

Taking heat from the court, the state passed the qisas and diyat provisions in response, which form the ultimate act today: qisas, defined as “punishment by causing similar hurt at the same part of the body of the convict” and diyat, “compensation … payable to the heirs of the victims”, converted a crime against the state into a crime against the individual.

We’ve since been flooded with issues from the outset — murder (qatl-i-amad) is punishable with death as qisas (i.e., equal retaliation), or as death or life imprisonment under ta’zir. But a qisas offence may be proven in only two ways: that the accused either confesses voluntarily before the court, or by evidence under the Qanun-e-Shahadat’s Article 17.

To turn to the first plank — confession — few men confess to doing what may lead them to rope or rack. Yet of even those that do, judicial interpretation is such that it may discard the statement altogether, especially where ghairat is involved.

In one such case, the accused was convicted after confessing, by both the trial and Shariat Court. The case reached the Supreme Court (with Pir Karam Shah sahib yet again on the bench!). It was Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui that ruled, “In these circumstances it was not open to the court below to have only that part of his statement under section 342 CrPC in which he admitted having killed the deceased Muhammad Yousuf and discard that part of his statement in which he stated that it was done under grave and sudden provocation as he had found the deceased in a compromising position with his wife in the early hours of morning.” The Court set him free, via sentence already served.

Review of ‘Qisas and Diyat Ordinance 1990’ demanded

This forms part of a wider trend of judges weighing up izzat and honour over actual penal sentence. As Justice Siddiqui told the Commission, convictions under the ‘confession’ section rarely take place. Might he wonder why?

For the second plank for conviction — evidence mandated by Qanun-e-Shahadat — the law provides the Court “may accept or act on the testimony of one man or one woman”.

Yet in a spate of decisions, this was elevated to a Tazkiyah-tul-Shahood test, i.e., that the Court first ascertain the credibility of said witnesses. The Tazkiyah test is required for both Hudood offences and qisas: the witness must abstain from “major sins” and be disinclined to indulge in minor ones.

And with that, all witnesses go out the window: this, without even touching how ordinary witnesses are bought or beaten into recanting evidence as a matter of routine.

Seeing qisas convictions are a joke and a half, we’re down to the usually used murder category: ta’zir — punishment where the offence isn’t proven under qisas standards (i.e., red-herring confessions or holy witnesses). Yet ta’zir, being a somewhat B-category offence, provides no lower limit in sentence: thus, honour killings merit on average not more than five years.

With ta’zir enfeebled, that leaves us with diyat: the wali or heirs of the deceased may accept blood money in compensation for a crime under qisas. We remember well Raymond Davis, in ratty plaids, avoiding eye contact, or Shahrukh Jatoi giggling and waving to the cameras in contrast — killers that bought their freedom (though Jatoi was hemmed in, in one of the Chaudhry Court’s finer moments).

But do we remember sons taking diyat from their own honour-killing fathers, or brothers taking diyat from sister-killing brothers; a law that encourages the crime? Just the fact that qisas is near-impossible to prove should mean that diyat be as difficult to obtain.

Yet the courts (and police) jump the gun: freeing the killer via diyat without first convicting him under qisas. Thus between 1990 and 2000, conviction rates fell from 29 per cent to 12 according to scholar Tahir Wasti.

Unpardonable crimes

It’s time now to turn the tide. Firstly, section 311 of the PPC — fisad-fil-arz (mischief on earth) — empowers the Court to punish the accused regardless of compromise, owing to the depravity of the crime. While widened to include honour killing, these provisions are rarely invoked, and it’s time the judiciary took initiative against this practice.

Then there is required a multi-pronged approach, as also recommended by the Commission — first, that fisad-fil-arz be given far broader scope. Then, rather than leaving it to the Court’s discretion, diyat be made blanket-ineligible in fisad cases.

As further safeguards, a pardon may only be applicable after conviction anyway, with a prison term regardless. Or — to cut to the root of the matter — that the stipulation of wali (entitled to claim diyat) is expansive, and may include the state first (and never a relative of the accused), with no monetary incentive at play.

Ways to better our broken justice system abound, if with few takers. The same Hale struck a maudlin note, “That in business capital [matters of life and death], though my nature prompts me to pity, yet to consider that there is also pity due to the country.”

One may only agree with the departed Chief Justice; that there is pity due to this country.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st,  2015.

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COMMENTS (4)

Rex Minor | 5 years ago | Reply It would seem that the author is addressing the law students on the legal implications of revenge killing in Pakistan. Does this differ in any way from what is practiced in the USA or Europe among the Italian migrants from calabria and palermo? Rex Minor
Hassan | 5 years ago | Reply @TooTrue: Who has given state such much legitimacy. Either say that nobody can pardon and every criminal should be punished or say that heirs along with state should be the pardoner. Following western countries is a bit difficult because many of them are nation states or federation of nation states. Nation here means tribes like France. Hence your deference to state is actually submission to tribal roots of state.
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