ISLAMABAD: The ineffectiveness of Pakistan’s criminal justice system has serious repercussions for domestic, regional and international security. Given the gravity of internal security challenges, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government, and the four provincial governments should make the reform of an anarchic criminal justice sector a top domestic priority.
The latest report from the International Crisis Group examines Pakistan’s criminal justice sector and urges the government to take immediate action for reform. Investigators are poorly trained, prosecutors fail to build strong cases that stand up in court, and there is a lack of access to basic data and modern tools.
Moreover, corruption, intimidation and external interference, including by the military’s intelligence agencies, compromise cases before they even come to court. As a result, domestic stability is undermined, and the public’s confidence in the law is weakened.
“Pakistan’s police, and indeed the whole criminal justice system, still largely functions on the imperative of maintaining public order rather than tackling 21st century crime,” says Samina Ahmed, the crisis group’s South Asia project director.
Given the absence of scientific evidence collection methods and credible witness protection programs, police and prosecutors rely mostly on confessions by the accused, which are inadmissible in court. Terrorists and other major criminals are regularly released on bail, or their trials persist for years even as they plan operations from prison.
The low conviction rate – between five and 10 per cent at best – may be unsurprising in a system so resistant to reform. When prosecutors fail to get convictions in major cases such as the June 2008 Danish embassy bombing, the September 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, and the March 2009 attack on a police academy in Lahore, public confidence in the state’s ability to respond to terrorism is dramatically weakened.
Wresting civilian control over counter-terrorism policy, a key challenge of the current democratic transition, will require massive investments in police and prosecutors, specifically to enhance investigative capacity and case building. Successes in combating serious crime, including kidnappings-for-ransom and sectarian terrorism, during the democratic transition of the 1990s demonstrate that civilian law enforcement agencies can be effective when properly authorised and equipped.
With the scale of violence far greater today, the government needs all the more to utilise political and fiscal capital to modernise the criminal justice sector.
Of course, criminal justice cannot be isolated from the broader challenges of the democratic transition. The repeated suspension of the constitution by military regimes, followed by extensive reforms to centralise power and to strengthen their civilian allies, notably the religious right, have undermined constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Pakistan’s federal government and provincial governments must revoke discriminatory laws, amend the Criminal Procedure Code to establish a robust witness protection programme, recast the Anti-Terrorism Act and repeal parallel court systems.
The police’s investigative capacity must be strengthened, external interference in investigations prevented and a comprehensive review conducted to assess gaps in personnel, training and resource needs. Policymakers and judges should not give in to populist quick fixes that only limit the justice system’s capacity to enforce the law.
“The state largely derives its authority from the public’s confidence in police to maintain security, and the courts to deliver justice,” says Robert Templer, the group’s Asia programme director. “The international community can help shore up an increasingly fragile Pakistan by shifting the focus of its security assistance away from the military and toward civilian law enforcement agencies and criminal prosecution.”
The ICG report made several recommendations to the higher judiciary, including to respect the separation of powers enshrined in the constitution by limiting the Supreme Court’s use of suo moto powers to extreme cases of fundamental rights violations and prohibiting the provincial high courts from taking suo moto action, in accordance with the constitution.
Input from Agencies