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All is not well

Publication Date : 03-06-2014

 

Grace, tolerance, mercy: these words seem to have disappeared from the lexicon of Pakistani polity. Instead, vengeance, violence, slander and murder seem to have gained currency in a state-sponsored narrative of denial and fear.

While institutions have sanctity, those at the helm must be accountable and willing to face healthy criticism. This is the essence of democracy, unless we as a nation are just content with paying lip service to the constitutionally guaranteed right “to enjoy the protection of law and to be treated in accordance with law”.

The most gruesome murder of Rashid Rehman, a respected lawyer and a humble flag-bearer of human rights in Multan, should be enough to shake the collective conscience of a nation that finds itself helpless against an extremist mindset that conveniently silences the voices raised to give blasphemy accused their right to be treated in accordance with the law. The state is clearly showing signs of paralysis and inaction against blatant violence of zealots.

The police generally fail to fulfil the primary role of carrying out a fair and unbiased investigation in allegations of blasphemy and their first task is to save the accused from being lynched. They succumb to the pressure of furious crowds and arrest the accused and put him or her behind bars to pacify the mob. While it is important for police to save the accused from mob justice, it is equally crucial for them to ensure fair investigation and avoid hasty arrest of the accused without collection of necessary evidence.

Blasphemy cases are ‘special report’ cases that require supervision of the investigation by senior officers of the rank of superintendent of police. SPs are required to lead by example and set high standards of professionalism, integrity, and impartiality. Their oath of office and semi-judicial role as investigators should make them rise above any sectarian, ethnic or religious considerations. The police have to ensure the inviolable “obligation of every citizen” to obey the Constitution and the law. Failure to fulfil this unpleasant task makes them appear inefficient, incompetent or complicit in weakening the writ of the state.

One exception to this policy of capitulation was witnessed last year in Multan when a lawyer got a blasphemy case registered on a court order against a former ambassador and federal minister for her remarks in a media interview. The local police, supported by the highest administrative and police authorities of the province, proved at the investigation stage that a case was not made out and recommended its closure.

The situation of a university professor last year, however, was different as he had formerly held no high public office. He was charged for blasphemy by a few right-wing students and jealous colleagues, and the police felt obliged to shift the burden on the trial court of an additional sessions judge to determine the guilt, or otherwise.

Some in the judiciary are also perceived as swimming with the tide of extremism. Many lack the courage to sift the truth from falsehood and neither grant bail to the accused nor acquit them. The trial judges tend to shift the burden to the appellate high courts. There the cases linger for years; assassinations of senior judges in the past who dared to acquit convicted ‘blasphemers’ are within memory. Matters ultimately land before the Supreme Court.

However, the superior courts have in rare cases acquitted convicts awarded death penalty by trial courts. But an accused in sight of eventual relief by a slow and lumbering process is always vulnerable to vigilante justice. A fellow prisoner or a jail official is likely to administer ‘punishment’.

Lawyers like the late Rashid Rehman are an endangered species who come forward to protect the constitutional right of a blasphemy accused. But then there is a strain of extremist lawyers out to subvert justice. Now it remains to be seen whether the lawyers from the prosecution side who reportedly threatened Rehman during the trial earn the censure of their colleagues, whether there will be punitive administrative action by the licensing authorities and whether the investigating officers of this case have the will and courage to interrogate or arrest them and others who were part of the court proceedings.

Where is the chief executive of the province? Does this case of religious zealotry not attract his ire? Why not go after the assassins and zealots who make a mockery of his tight-fisted administration? Is it fair to surmise that the right-of-centre political parties lack the will to combat violent religious extremism? Is it also not true that the left-of-centre parties are nursing the wounds inflicted upon them while they were in power? Will politicians across the board not get together on the same page and combat the menace of violent extremism?

They have already started to look like Lilliputians against the Brobdingnagian terrorist giants.

Finally, a word for our holy cows: the military establishment and the intelligence agencies. Can they do away with the proxies and bigoted brigades raised under their tutelage and learn to operate within the framework of the Constitution and the law? Are they above the law? They have the finest soldiers and are expected to lead them as befitting commanders, for the challenges being faced might unravel the state.

All institutions are required to work with dignity, grace and maturity. We cannot afford a clash of egos. They must get their act together and rise above institutional turf battles in order to win the war against militancy.

(The writer is a retired police officer)

 

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