OVER A COFFEE : Jessicafication of the Shahzeb case — Dr Haider Shah
The provisions of Qisas and Diyat have changed the criminal law in Pakistan, providing the accused an opportunity to pressurise the family of the victim through monetary offers
In the backdrop of bomb blasts and incessant killings, tensions over the Line of Control are rising to a dangerous level as well. The smokescreen created by the hue and cry of the Qadri-Altaf duo has eclipsed more urgent issues and impeded development of public discourse on the post-election scenario in Pakistan. While these political and geo-strategic developments are extremely important, I find the Shahzeb Khan murder case standing out as its successful logical conclusion can be a test case of a maturing civil society.
Murders, for a variety of reasons, take place all over the world. How the perpetrator escapes the dragnet is however different in different countries. If we examine the famous Jessica Lal murder case of India, we can learn why at times a criminal system fails miserably to deliver justice. The Indian nation was shocked to its core when the killer of a young woman was acquitted by the court even though the murder had taken place in front of many guests. Two factors surface prominently in the Jessica Lal case. First, the case is damaged by the investigative agency by its dishonest use of power. Second, even if the police are not complicit, the accused use their influence through threats or bribery, purchase witnesses and other pieces of evidence, and hence secure a favourable judgment from the court.
There is a third factor that we can learn from the Raymond Davis and Samia Sarwar cases. In the Raymond Davis case, a US national shot a Pakistani dead and was arrested on the spot. As the case was in the spotlight of the media, the two factors of personal influence and investigators’ partiality could not ensure the release of the accused. In the end, however, we saw the killer simply walk out of jail. In the Samia Sarwar case, she was killed in broad daylight by a hired killer who was accompanying the mother of the unfortunate girl. Just as in the Jessica case, the honour killing was witnessed by the horrified staff of a Lahore-based NGO in whose office the incident happened in 1999. Ironically, almost all nationalist, secular, liberal and Marxist leaders of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa got together to rescue the father of the girl who had despatched the killer with the mother. The US government, for Davis, and the liberal nationalist saviours of the father of the slain girl resorted to the Qisas (equal punishment for the crime committed) and Diyat (compensation payable to the victims or their legal heirs) provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code. Davis took his flight straight back home while the father of the murdered girl soon became the president of the Chamber of Commerce. Concluding from these case studies, we learn that the third factor for the failure of a criminal legal system is the law itself.
Shahzeb, a young man of 20 and the son of a DSP, was murdered on December 25, 2012 near his house in Karachi’s Defence Housing Society, reportedly after an alleged altercation over verbal threats to the victim’s sister. All humans experience an adrenaline rush in threatening situations and often make decisions in haste that later they repent. Those who live in an artificially created environment of affluence with servants carrying weapons all around become so temperamental that they would gun down any offender first and think about the cause later. I am, therefore, not surprised that a petty brawl resulted in the murder of a young man at the hands of the scions of affluent families of the posh Defence area. Like countless other murders, the killing might have gone down as a little noticed crime statistic had it not received wide coverage in the social networking media. When the news item was posted on our Rationalist Society’s discussion site, the immediate feeling was that nothing would happen to the resourceful accused. This prompted me to think about the factors that might result in the state’s inability to do justice to the departed soul and get the killer convicted by the courts.
The first factor of the Jessica case, the partisan role of police, was witnessed soon after the incident happened. No arrests were made nor could any noticeable effort be seen to bring the culprits to book. Even the social media campaign could not break the inertia of the Karachi police. The DIG Police Karachi South very categorically declared in a TV interview that the main accused was in Pakistan and would be apprehended within three days. The situation, however, changed dramatically when the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the case, and soon it transpired that the main accused had already made good his escape. While the incident of the murder can be attributed to an uncontrolled adrenaline rush, absconding from the country must have happened after careful planning and use of family resources. The case of abetment with a view to obstructing the course of justice is, therefore, a much more serious offence in this case.
Sceptics remain unconvinced that, like in the Jessica case, justice will be done in the end. Witnesses might go hostile or forensic reports may be manufactured. And if despite the best efforts of the police, and the generous use of family connections and monetary resources, the accused is unable to escape the dragnet, there remains one final escape route that we find unable to block. The provisions of Qisas and Diyat have changed the criminal law in Pakistan in a fundamental way, providing the accused an opportunity to pressurise the family of the victim through use of force or monetary offers. If everything else fails, this escape route is wide open and therefore the perception that the Shahzeb case cannot become a Jessica case is not without a sound basis.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org