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EDITORIAL: Two speeches at the ceremony to mark the start of the new judicial year at the Supreme Court (SC) in Islamabad on September 14, 2020 laid bare the problems and injustices at the heart of our justice system. First, the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Gulzar Ahmad stressed the criticality of the independence of the judiciary for delivering justice and protecting the fundamental rights of the citizen. The CJP underlined the importance of judges being fully independent without any external pressures. This statement is doubly significant in the backdrop of the shrinking space for dissent and questions about the credibility of the legal system. The CJP underlined the concept of the judicial year as an opportunity to scrutinize the balance sheet of good and bad points of the justice system. Although the CJP's view is to be respected, one is inclined to ask whether such annual ceremonies have succeeded in tackling the glaring flaws and gaps in the justice system, chief amongst which must be counted the interminable time taken to adjudicate cases, leading to a mountain of the backlog of cases that seems to have become a permanent feature of our lives. A stronger critique was aired by Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Jawed Khan, who pulled no punches in describing the criminal justice system as heavily tilted in favour of the perpetrators of a crime rather than the victim. This injustice, he went on, is at its worst when the perpetrators are socially and financially powerful. Wealth and social status raise an impregnable defence in favour of the perpetrators, while gender-related crimes are endemic, he argued. Women in particular are targeted, whether through rape, molestation or honour killings, depriving them of peace even in the grave. The AGP called for serious collective retrospection on these issues. The criminal justice system may be bad, the AG continued, but the civil justice system is wont to allow matters to linger on for generations, thus answering to the description of justice delayed is justice denied.

The central culprit in the interminable delays in both our criminal and civil justice system is adjournments. These, granted almost without thought, compound the other delaying factors in the objective of cases being decided in a reasonable time frame. The government should, with the superior judiciary's help, constitute a justice system reform commission that can look into and suggest ways and means to cut down unnecessary adjournments and tackle other causes of delay in order to bring cases to a timely close. While we are on the subject, the indignation, anger and rage produced across society by the motorway gang-rape incident has elicited calls for harsh punishments for rapists and paedophiles. While the sentiments expressed in this regard from the prime minister down to ministers, parliamentarians and outraged citizens calling for public hangings and castration as punishments are understandable in the context of the horrendous incident, it is time for calmer heads when everyone around appears to be losing theirs. Barbaric punishments are supposed to deter crime, but the argument is refuted by the evidence of long standing. All such practices that are a throwback to barbarism do is brutalise society even further without necessarily any noticeable effect on the incidence of such crimes. Of course, there are more rational courses to meet the objective of keeping society safe from the perpetrators of such crimes, particularly repeat or serial offenders. Life imprisonment without the present legal limit and no chance of parole would be the harshest but perhaps most just punishment for such offenders. Public hangings and castration may or may not do much to deter such crimes (or any other crimes for that matter), but what they may do to our collective notions of justice is a grave and potentially greater social damage than the original sin itself.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020

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