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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 March, 2005, 18:07 GMT
Pakistan's justice system in spotlight
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News website

Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai's case was followed at home and abroad
Three years ago, it was the brutality of the event that left human rights campaigners in Pakistan, and indeed the rest of the world, aghast.

Now there is concern at the acquittal of five of the six men found guilty of gang-rape and sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in August 2002.

In February 2002, 23-year-old Mukhtar Mai, a resident of the remote southern Punjabi village of Meerwali, was allegedly gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council.

Realising the enormity of the case, Pakistani authorities sent it to an anti-terrorism court.

Pakistani law allows exceptionally serious crimes to be tried in anti-terrorism courts which are mandated to speed up trial procedures to ensure rapid delivery of justice.

Reversal

In August that year, six of the 14 accused were found guilty and sentenced to death.

They all went to appeal. Now, two-and-a-half years down the road, all but one have won their freedom.

Mukhtar Mai
Insufficient evidence was one reason cited for the acquittals

In the short order that reversed the trial court's verdict, the appeal court observed that the convictions could not be upheld for reasons of "insufficient evidence" and "faulty investigations".

While a detailed judgment is still awaited, observers in Pakistan say the two reasons mentioned in the short order say enough about the state of Pakistan's criminal justice system.

Khawaja Naveed Ahmad, a noted lawyer in Karachi who deals mostly in criminal cases, says that often the reasons behind what appear to be miscarriages of justice have little to do with the courts.

"In high profile cases such as that of Mukhtar Mai, the police find themselves under immense pressure - both from the government as well as influential people who may be supporting the accused," he told BBC News Online.

'Cheat modes'

In some cases police come under pressure to ensure an acquittal and so create contradictions within the case.

One way of doing that is through shabby and inconsistent record keeping, explains Mr Ahmad.

In high-profile cases... the police find themselves under immense pressure
Khawaja Naveed Ahmad,
lawyer

Such inconsistencies may include incorrect descriptions of the scene of the crime and the physical state of the victim, the number of witnesses and their relationship with the accused and so on.

Second, the police often ask the victim to produce witnesses instead of themselves trying to identify the right witnesses and ensuring they are produced before the court.

In many cases, witnesses are illiterate and cannot even read their own statements when they are asked to sign them.

Witnesses themselves can be extremely reluctant to get involved in what could be very lengthy trials.

And then there is the pervasive problem of language, given that the country's criminal justice system is based on Anglo-Saxon law.

Most witnesses testify in the vernacular but their statements are recorded in English. According to Mr Ahmad, the real testimony in many instances is lost in translation.

These issues can still be dealt with at the level of the trial court.

"It is relatively easier for the trial judge to reach the right conclusion as they are interacting with all the characters - the alleged victim, the accused and the witnesses - on a one-to-one basis," explains Mr Ahmad.

Reality check

It is common for trial judges to ignore minor contradictions because such anomalies can always be weighed against the conduct of those involved, he adds.

The appeal court, in contrast, looks only at the recorded evidence with nothing to weigh it against.

Mukhtar Mai's case was probably among the most high-profile rape cases to have emerged in recent times.

Its speedy disposal in 2002 won the government of President Pervez Musharraf much acclaim both locally and abroad.

But the reversal on Wednesday has in the same way delivered a blow to Gen Musharraf's liberal reform agenda.



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