The Supreme Court’s suo motu powers are often questioned since, the cases that are picked up are open to public criticism, especially that there seems to be no standardised process. Occasionally, however, it leads to the correction of an injustice so glaring that one finally understands that, at its best, suo motu powers exist to help those who have been forgotten and discarded by the legal system. Such was the case with Bilal, a mentally challenged man, who was held in Hyderabad jail for 12 years, without being charged! It appears that he was arrested on the vague charges of walking in a suspicious manner and simply left to rot in the system. Had his family not learned of his whereabouts and had the Supreme Court not taken action, it is very likely that he would have languished in prison indefinitely.
As welcome as this suo motu action was, the problem with it is that it helps out an individual without tackling the rot in the system. So corrupt and dysfunctional is the prison and judicial system in Pakistan that on many occasions people have spent years there awaiting trial. A study done by the International Crisis Group in 2011 found that out of 78,000 people in prison, as many as 50,000 were still awaiting trial. The problem with this, apart from the denial of a citizen’s fundamental human right to a trial, is that it breeds recidivism. Prisoners who have been treated unfairly are far more likely to return to a life of crime. Add to this, the overcrowding in prisons with absence of any checks on police brutality, and you end up with tens of thousands of people who have yet to be judged guilty but are being treated as if they are.
A complete overhaul of the criminal justice system is badly needed to ensure that cases like Bilal’s are anomalies rather than the norm. The police have to be educated about the proper procedure for detaining and charging prisoners and the courts need to be more efficient at hearing cases.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2012.
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