Editor’s Note: Mariyam Suleman is a social activist and a writer from Gwadar. She mostly writes opinion articles, feature stories and blog posts related to the issues of underprivileged. She has written this data story on the plight of citizens languishing in jails for years as they wait for their turn in court.
The name of the person in the first paragraph has been changed to protect his identity.
Asghar Sanjrani is finally free after the six years’ imprisonment. He was wrongly convicted of trying to assassinate Irfan Baloch, who died of unrelated causes three years after that conviction. Sanjarani remained imprisoned until his request for appeal was reopened in March this year. He had been imprisoned for a crime that the court finally determined he did not commit.
Sanjrani’s case is only one among thousands of pending cases, both big and small, that await justice, but few receive their day in court.
Staff shortages create long delays
One out of five cases filed in Balochistan remains pending for years. The time from a plea to judgment ranges from few months to ten to fifteen years. In Balochistan, the wheels of justice have nearly ground to a halt.
A key reason is there are simply not enough judges to go around. There are not enough qualified candidates to fill the vacancies that exist, let alone to expand and reduce pressure on the chronically overstretched system.
The additional advocate general Mir Shay Haq Baloch said that there are only eleven judges in the High Court of Balochistan and none assigned to the Turbat and Sibi Bench. Instead, every month, two of the eleven high court judges are sent to handle the cases in Turbat and Sibi Bench. It depends on the number of cases they need to handle so mostly they stay for a few days and maximum to a week.
The number of judges in the High Court of Balochistan is only 11, that means there is hardly a single judge per million population which is against 50 judges for every million citizens in developed countries and 35-40 judges per million citizens in some developing countries.
Even with enough judges to try cases, there wouldn’t be enough public prosecutors to argue cases. Both shortages are due in part to the very manner in which judges, prosecutors and attorneys are appointed. In Balochistan, the qualifications for judges, prosecutors and attorneys are very high while capacity is quite low.
While the government is expecting more capacity, justice seekers like Sanjrani wait years for their day in the court. So far, out of every ten positions in the courts of Balochistan four are vacant. The number of a prosecutor in Balochistan is 28 per million people, which is against 300 lawyers per million people in developed countries.
“Since there are fewer public prosecutors, their workload is much more but pay ranges from Rs 70,000-100,000 which is far less compensation than the work they do. And pressure and restrictions also accompany with the job, for instance, the public prosecutors are restricted with limited social interactions and so on,” a private lawyer practicing in Quetta, advocate Kifiyatullah Qazi explained.
“Therefore, most lawyers in Balochistan prefer private practice rather than restricting themselves with unending judicial processes of public prosecution.”
He further went on to say that although private lawyers also face financial crisis sometimes when there are no cases to defend, yet they are not bound to any kind of restrictions. They are free to handle cases of their choice.
High profile criminal crimes, in many court systems are “fast tracked”. This means the case is prioritized over other pending cases and is fast tracked in order to ensure speedy justice and to avoid potentially innocent suspects languishing in jail awaiting trial. However, in the case of Balochistan or as a whole in Pakistan, the cases that are fast-tracked are only those that catch the attention of media outlets.
As the national media often forgets Balochistan, very few cases are fast-tracked in the provincial justice system. Hence the number of pending cases continues to grow.
“Waiting for the trial for six years was as hard for me as it was for my family members. They were economically venerable and dependent. The only work I often felt courts of Balochistan do: “discussion” and “delaying” of cases, rather than deciding the cases,” Sanjrani reflected while sharing his experience with the provincial justice system.
Life without rule of law
Rule of law is a legal principle through which law governs a nation, not at personal whims. In a society where there is no rule of law, there is no public safety.
From 2014-2016, according to the Balochistan Police official site, 1025 murder cases were registered, 19 cases of highway robbery, 1873 cases of other vehicle crimes and 69 cases of kidnapping for ransom were registered.
On the other hand, according to South Asian Terrorist Portal so far in different incidents of suicide attacks in various parts of Balochistan, from 2003-2017, 845 people were killed and more than 1638 were injured. And most of these attacks were in the provincial capital Quetta, making it one of the most insecure cities in the region.
The Constitution of Pakistan declares “safety” a fundamental right for every citizen. Hence, maintaining peace and ensuring security not only for justice providers but for all citizens is the responsibility of the government and law enforcement agencies.
The absence of rule of law makes people venerable to anomic and lawless situations where no one cares what happens to the citizens and their lives. Institutions become weaker when laws are unable to protect citizens. Similar is the case of Balochistan. The delayed justice has declined the quality of social institutions, government departments and negatively affected the lives of citizens.
Bottlenecks in the System
In a justice system with a huge bottleneck created by staff shortages, one of the biggest administrative errors is to allow the police to flood the system with cases that could be easily resolved out of the court.
“One of the contributing factors for a huge number of cases is also the registration of First Information Report (FIR) by police across Balochistan for cases that do not necessarily need to undergo lengthy legal processes,” says advocate Qazi.
Several cases do not necessarily need to be admitted in the court, yet they are and so they keep increasing the number of already pending cases. On the other hand, once a FIR is registered, the admission of a case in court takes time.
It has several times been seen that cases which could be solved in one session were not decided, such as the Sanjrani’s case that remained pending for six years. Such delays are either because of the minimum time a judge has and a huge number of cases he/she has to hear.
For instance, a judge who is assigned for 3-4 days to handle cases in Turbat Bench or Sibi Bench can hardly give enough time to the cases already piled up, let alone the new cases.
It has also been noticed that several prosecutors make intentional effort to stretch out and delay the cases just so they have something to do. All these factors make things complicated for justice seekers in Baluchistan, a province where the population is the lowest as compared to the other provinces and where justice would not have been a far distant dream if only the government and the justice providers had made it easier.
Security a looming fear:
For lawyers, judges, defendants and complainants, seeking justice in Balochistan is an inherently dangerous activity.
The 2017 Human Rights Report by Human Rights Watch reveals that although in 2016, Pakistan had fewer incidents of militant violence than previous years in which scores of people were killed. However, amongst the people killed in 2016 are a long list of lawyers from Balochistan.
On June 8, 2016, the young principal of University of Balochistan Law College, Barrister Amanullah Achakzai, was shot dead by unidentified assailants. Like so many of the cases in Balochistan, this case remains unsolved.
Exactly two months later, on August 8, an extremist group killed the president of Balochistan Bar Association (BBA), Bilal Anwar Kasi. The message was clear: justice has no place in Balochistan. Hundreds of lawyers rallied for a peaceful protest in the emergency section of Civil Hospital Quetta, condemning the attack when a suicide bomb detonated, killing 70 people at once, including 55 lawyers.
“I have witnessed the August 8 incident. The High Court was closed for two months after the attack last year and justice providers continued protesting every two days in a week for three months, just to ensure security and hold the perpetrators to account,” said advocate Changis Baloch, a member of Quetta Bar Association and a survivor of the attack.
Fear and continuous closure of court is another factor for the increased number of pending cases. With the recent elections for Bar Associations, the senior lawyers are making an effort to encourage the new lawyers to continue practicing despite the insecurity.
“So far things have not normalized, but they are getting better with time,” he said. “We recently had an election for Quetta Bar Association on 8th April and had the election for Balochistan Bar Association on 28th April.”
A problem money can’t solve:
Despite an influx of funding over the last three years, the provincial prosecution and law and order departments have failed to deliver the needed push to restart the justice system and reverse the climate of impunity and fear.
In 2016, before the attacks on justice providers, the provincial law and order department planned a security campaign, “Safe City Project” in two of the sensitive cities of Balochistan: Gwadar and Quetta. Under the project, the government planned to adopt an array of potential counterterrorism procedures, which included heavy security, installation of CCTV Cameras and automatic number plate readers.
The project was worth of estimated Rs. 10 billion. Some of the funds were disbursed as well but the project was not implemented. As a consequence, people face violent attacks, insecurity with the government failing to provide protection.
Besides a hiring spree, practical suggestions have been made to bring back law and order to the region. In response to the immense challenges justice system is facing, the government has to hire more public prosecutors and judges so that the pending cases get an opportunity to undergo trial. On the other hand, the requirements for justice providers need to be lowered in order to get their adequate number.
For the security, the government usually rushes through measures in the immediate aftermath of tragic attacks, which past experience has shown creates a serious risk that exceptional measures will become norms without sufficient consideration of their long-term impact, say lawyers.