Pakistan’s courts still don’t work, and a big case remains untried
ADNAN R. KHANMarch242008
Seeking justice amid the chaos
Pakistan’s courts still don’t work, and a big case remains untried
ADNAN R. KHAN
Anyone expecting a timely social and political transformation in Pakistan after what were generally considered free and fair general elections on Feb. 18 should look a little more closely at where Pakistan stands now. A government is still only starting to take shape, with leaders from the victorious parties spending weeks in backroom meetings, stitching together a coalition of what will undoubtedly be unlikely bedfellows. Beyond that, the issues facing them remain, like a herd of elephants in a quickly shrinking room. One looming question mark now is the future of Pakistan’s judicial system, left in a state of chaos after President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November 2007 and used his extra-constitutional powers to replace Supreme Court judges opposed to his re-election with judges loyal to him. Since then, lawyers have been regularly taking to the streets in protest, boycotting the courts and demanding a reinstatement of all deposed judges. They have been targeted, not only by militants, but also by the state security apparatus. Hundreds remain in jail.
Pakistan’s lawyers are now looking to the new ruling coalition, to be made up of Musharraf’s political enemies—Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N—to put back on track what many observers said was the evolution of Pakistan’s first truly
autonomous court system. They are not alone. From his quiet suburban home in Richmond Hill, Ont., Salman Qaiser is also keeping a close eye on his native country. His wife, Kafila Siddiqui, was the victim of a brutal murder in Islamabad in June 2007 The alleged killer, Mohammad Shahid Jamil Qureshi, former state minister for communication and senior member of the PML-Q, the party supporting Musharraf, remains in lock-up, awaiting a trial that appeared to be slipping beyond the horizon of Pakistan’s uncertain future—until the PML-Q lost the election.
“I’m feeling a little bit better now,” says Qaiser, who has struggled through months of what he calls cover-ups and political interference in the investigation of his wife’s murder. “If the PML-Q had won, they would have done anything they could to get this man freed. But he still has friends in powerful places. Pakistani politicians are linked no matter what party they belong to. They’re all part of the same club, so my fears are no less diminished by the PML-Q loss.”
No less diminished are fears that the judiciary will never get itself back on the road to being an independent institution, as it was before Musharraf’s crackdown. Since then, justice has been anything but swift in Pakistan. As lawyers continue to protest, cases are piling up, including Siddiqui’s. In an environment plagued by so much uncertainty, many wonder whether Pakistan is heading for another round of corrupt, dictatorial rule—only this time at the hands of an elected ruling elite that can claim to have a democratic mandate.
“The judicial drama is far from over,” says
Qasim Ali Chowhan, the prosecuting lawyer in Siddiqui’s case. “The entire system of appointing judges has been politicized for years. Now the PML-N is pushing for reinstatement of the deposed judges, because many were loyal to them—they were appointed while Sharif was in power.” On Sunday, the PML-N got its way: the new coalition government will restore deposed judges within a month. But the PPP, which won the election partly on the strength of a sympathy vote after Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27,2007, wants more influence in the courts, so it will push for its own appointments, Chowhan adds. The end result is anyone’s guess, but for Qaiser, the concern is that as more time passes, the more opportunity Qureshi will have to get himself freed. “My fear is that any day Qureshi can walk free,” he says. “Everything is in so much chaos because of the political situation. Nobody cares about one dead woman.”
The only woman whose death has mattered during the past months is Bhutto, whose assassination nearly put an end to the election process and pushed Pakistan to the brink of collapse. Siddiqui, a businesswoman whose bizarre murder caused a ripple nine months ago, barely registers on anyone’s radar now. But her death, and especially the subsequent investigation, tells a disturbingly familiar Pakistani story: a powerful politician implicated in a killing, the investigation marred by allegations of a coverup, the crime scene wiped clean before a thorough search for evidence is done, and a woefully incomplete first medical exam. Some of those elements read like a template for the investigation that followed Bhutto’s assassination. And questions still remain over how Siddiqui was killed. Two years after her arrival in Pakistan on a business venture, she was found dead in a posh suburban home rented by Qureshi in the capital, Islamabad. According to a second autopsy, requested and paid for by her family, her death was the result of blunt force trauma to the head—after she had been allegedly confined to a tiny second-floor room and out of contact with her family for weeks.
But she died on the eve of one of Pakistan’s most turbulent periods. In the months following her death, the country suffered from a surge in militant Islamic violence, political assassination and sectarian strife—culminating in what could be defined as the tensest elections in Pakistan’s history. The communal sigh of relief that followed the vote, when thousands of Pakistanis from all political persuasions hit the streets in celebration, was short-lived: a series of attacks over the past two weeks has served as a reminder that a generally peaceful election was only the first step on a long road to stability. And amidst so much violence and turmoil, a murder case, even one
involving a foreign national and an influential politician, doesn’t amount to much.
“Unfortunately, the country’s condition is such that the police and legal system is busy with other things,” says Muhammad Ishaq Khan, Qureshi’s lawyer. Police on the crime beat are now recruited to guard against suicide attacks, and to protect politicians who have increasingly become targets. In the meantime, Siddiqui’s murder investigation remains
THIS IS EXTREMELY SENSITIVE, THE FIRST TIME A SITTING MINISTER HAS BEEN CHARGED WITH MURDER’
incomplete. “The case has been delayed because the original police report was not properly done,” says Malik Feisel Rafiq, a lawyer at the Islamabad Bar Association.
That report was returned to investigating officers at the Shalimar police station, near the home where Siddiqui’s body was found. Investigators there say the issues have all been dealt with and the report has been re-filed. But Chowhan disputes that. “This is not true,” he says. “The indictment is still incomplete, especially in terms of the cover-up that fol-
lowed the crime. Medical staff who wrote the first incomplete autopsy have not been questioned. The cleanup of the crime scene has not been investigated. This is an extremely sensitive case, the first time in Pakistan that a sitting minister has been charged with murder.” And while he is no longer a minister, Qureshi nonetheless wields considerable influence. “He still has a lot of friends in powerful places” says Qaiser. “He was even allowed to come out of jail to vote at the presidential election.” (That vote, on Oct. 6,2007, resulted in a landslide victory for Musharraf after opposition parties boycotted it. Pakistan’s Supreme Court was poised to declare it illegal—which prompted the president’s pre-emptive state of emergency.) Qureshi’s vote, cast in favour of Musharraf, would not have counted for much, but the symbolism of his attendance was not lost on Qaiser, who says he was “shocked” that his wife’s alleged killer was able to cast a ballot. “This is a man facing a murder charge,” Qaiser says, “and here he is mixing with his old cronies in the national assembly, the highest seat of power in Pakistan.”
It’s the sort of influence that is keeping Qaiser and Chowhan on their toes. Collectively, they have issued a complaint to the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, requesting that more be done to help prevent further manipulation in the investigation. “Many of Qureshi’s strings have been cut,” says Chowhan, “but he still has some he can pull.” But keeping watch over one criminal case will be difficult. Canadian officials did not respond to repeated queries about the progress of the investigation, though it’s likely they are following events. Still, with Pakistan’s courts still in disarray, and the memory of one dead Canadian fading fast, they may not be able to do much more than watch and wait. M
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