Sameer Khosa

On March 17 this year, a young Pakistani woman jumped to her own death in Italy, leaving behind a young son. How desperate must a single mother have been before deciding to take her own life and leave her son without his only support in the world? Fakhra Yunus, the young woman who died, was once married to Bilal Khar, the son of former Governor of Punjab and feudal landlord, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. She was the victim of a horrendous crime 12 years ago when she had acid thrown over her face, completely disfiguring her face and also other parts of her body. The crime is said to have taken place in front of her family and allegedly by none other than her husband, Bilal (who denies that he did so). By all accounts, what happened to Fakhra 12 years ago was a crime, but what is also true is that her death last month was also a crime. She did not kill herself. She was killed by a callous, unjust, imbalanced society that had failed her. The desperation in her that drove her to jump did not come of its own accord; it was created by the deafness of our ears to her pleas for justice and the ignorance of our minds to the extreme injustice in our society. Our entire society stands guilty of the crime of her death.

Since her death, many have joined the chorus that calls for the perpetrator of that crime to be brought to justice. Our politicians have seemingly woken up and demanded that she be given posthumous justice. Yet, the sudden and loud calls from these quarters ring hollow like just another burst of statements that will be issued at the opportune time only to be forgotten. After all, Fakhra Yunus was not the first victim of acid crimes, and neither has she been the last - yet, many of these leaders suddenly calling for the retrial of Bilal Khar neither had been championing the issue before her death, nor had they been active in providing her support.

Furthermore, the hollow ring to these voices is further consolidated by the fact that none of these leaders have shown the skill or the stomach to effect the real reforms that are needed before the perpetrators of such crimes can be brought to book effectively. For example, one must recognise that Bilal Khar has once been tried already. At the time of his trial, the witnesses to his alleged crime, including Fakhra’s own family, all went back on their own statements to the police that he had been the perpetrator. Faced with a trial in which no witness was willing to incriminate her husband, the court had no option but to acquit him.

That, unfortunately, is the reality of criminal prosecution in this country. People who are brazen enough to walk into a home and pour acid on another’s face in front of witnesses are usually also powerful enough in their own communities to prevent their own prosecution. In Fakhra’s own case, it is claimed (and is not beyond the realm of possibility at all) that the witnesses were coerced, intimidated and threatened with facing the same consequences as Fakhra, should they proceed with their testimony. Having seen such a barbaric act happen in front of their own eyes, who would have wanted to take the risk of putting themselves in the same position? Something, obviously, happened that suddenly everybody who had claimed to see this man commit the act decided that they could not be sure. It is at least plausible (if not probable), that they were threatened.

It is true that this government has recently passed The Acid Control and Prevention of Acid Crimes Act 2011. Yet, this measure still does not fix the underlying problem. Not until the state can ensure the sanctity of the criminal trial process itself, can this culture of impunity and this brazen attack on human dignity be eradicated from our society - and no leader has shown the stomach to take on this cause. Not until the safety and protection of witnesses to these trials is ensured, can effective justice be done. Fakhra’s case is not the only example of this. Uzma Ayub, a girl who was kidnapped and raped and decided to approach the courts for justice saw her brother being shot on court premises for standing by her. Malik Ishaq, on trial for terrorism, had to be let off because out of the eight witnesses against him, seven were conveniently murdered during the court proceedings.

Yet, this cannot be done without fundamentally re-orientating the calculus of our police and prosecution when a crime is committed. The societal emphasis on hushing it up is aided by the police incentives at the local level to get the matter ‘sorted’ - it means less work for them, and rumour has it, it is also more lucrative. We were all very outraged when Raymond Davis was able to fly out of Pakistan scot-free after paying a sum of money. Yet, the law allowed it, and frankly, Pakistan is full of Raymond types, it is just that their names are not Americanised and their passports are usually green, so our outrage is unwarranted.

Fakhra and Uzma are not the only victims. The fact is that there are desperately vulnerable people in our society, who are deeply let down by the system. These injustices are routine in our society. It is fundamentally true that, for the ordinary litigant, asking for justice in this country is still like asking for further punishment. This is the kind of injustice that we should be focused on eradicating from our country. These are the real battles of Pakistan as a society. It is inexcusable to not fight them.

n    The writer is a barrister at law in Lahore.