A crippled justice system

Published: March 10, 2017

Once again the justice system is revealed as deeply flawed. Four prisoners that had been sentenced to death, one of whom died of natural causes whilst under the death sentence, have been acquitted by the Supreme Court. Men today acquitted could have been hanged to death years ago. That they were not is down to the inefficiency of the system which in this instance and in the darkest of paradoxes has worked to their favour — indeed may have saved their lives. It is 14 years since they were originally arrested and charged and their chances of ever rebuilding their lives have to be remote. Judicial systems are complex everywhere, but Pakistan is blighted with a system that is and often at the lower levels, bedevilled by corruption at worst and workaday incompetence at a mediocre best. The SC has made the acquittal on the basis that corroboratory evidence must come from independent sources, and eyewitness evidence cannot by itself be corroboratory — an eyewitness cannot corroborate their own evidence. An eyewitness must have their account supported and endorsed by an independent party. It was this evidential flaw that brought about the original conviction, a flaw that ought to have been as evident then as it is today.

The case had done the judicial rounds. The alleged crime happened in 2003, and came to trial in 2005. The Lahore High Court upheld the verdict and dismissed the convicts’ appeals in June 2010. The Supreme Court granted leave of appeal in 2011 and yet it was not until October 2016 that matters approached a conclusion. The apex court eventually took up the case on 25th January 2017. The three surviving men now stand acquitted. The apex court granted them the benefit of the doubt by virtue of the evidential flaws cited above. It is not for us to say if justice has or has not been done, but we can say with certainty that the process of justice is so flawed that men today acquitted could have gone to the gallows. There will be other flawed judgments in the system. Innocents may have been hanged. The people of Pakistan deserve better, and healing a crippled justice system has to be a priority for this and successive governments.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2017.

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