By Ailia Zehra
June 14, 2018
The Lahore High Court (LHC) decision that acquitted the attacker of 23-year-old law student Khadija Siddiqui serves as a sad reminder of the fact that our justice system has always failed women.
The culprit, Shah Hussain, happens to be the son of an influential lawyer Tanveer Hashmi, which is why some lawyer groups have been trying to manipulate the proceedings of the court in his favour.
Hussain, who stabbed Khadija 23 times, was acquitted of the charges by the LHC in a shocking short order last week. The detailed judgement, which was issued later, added insult to injury. It appears that the judgement is justifying the attack on grounds that Khadija was friends with boys and had been photographed with them.
A letter written by Khadija Siddiqui to a friend when she was an 18-year-old was mentioned in the judgement; through this, the court seemed to target the victim’s character the same way Shah’s lawyers had done.
Khadija’s lawyers as well as other legal experts in the media are duly pointing out the verdict’s legal loopholes. The question of consent in an attempted murder case sounds absurd and raises questions on the intention of the judge, because consent of the complainant is taken into consideration only in cases involving sexual harassment. In an open and shut case of attempted murder, the relation between the victim and the perpetrator before the incident is irrelevant.
According to the DNA report, the blood found in the convict’s helmet belonged to Khadija and hair sample in the same helmet was that of Shah Hussain. Yet the LHC conveniently ignored the forensic evidence based its decision on Khadija’s personal life prior to the attack.
Thankfully, Chief Justice (CJ) Saqib Nisar took notice of the acquittal and set the case for hearing in the apex court’s Lahore registry. In the first hearing held on Sunday, the case was transferred to Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and the chief justice reportedly lashed out at Shah Hussain’s father for ‘running a campaign against the apex court’. Lahore High Court’s Bar Association has passed a resolution presented by the accused’s father against the chief justice’s suo motu notice of the acquittal.
From day one, the accused’s side had been targeting Khadija’s character as evidence in Shah Hussain’s favour. Despite the mudslinging, Khadija stood tall unlike most female victims of violence in Pakistan and got her attacker convicted. The verdict by judicial magistrate in July last year, which sentenced Hussain to a 7-year-imprisonment, was followed by months of rallying by civil society activists and media who brought the issue to the national spotlight.
Social media initially raised the issue last year when Khadija was forced to take her law exam in the same examination centre as her attacker. Mainstream media later followed suit and a number of anchors did shows on the case. The court was certainly under pressure to do the right thing, with the entire nation’s attention focused on the case.
Subsequently, Shah Hussain was convicted of stabbing Khadija with the intention of killing her and the judicial magistrate awarded a 7-year-sentence to him. Khadija appealed the decision and sought an increase in punishment. The convict’s lawyers also filed an appeal against the decision. Nevertheless, by this time, the media’s focus had shifted away from the case. Social activists also thought justice had been done and the right precedent set. But it was not over for Khadija yet.
Once public attention drifted, and demands for justice on mainstream and social media stopped, Khadija’s tormentors once again started pressurising her to reach a compromise with her attacker.
I reported for this publication in April that Khadija was sent a message by Punjab Governor Rafiq Rajwana that he wanted her to forgive Shah Hussain because the initial trial has already ‘destroyed his future’.
Khadija had also stated that the appellant court judge hearing the plea called her to his chamber and asked her to reach a compromise with the convict. No action was taken by the honourable CJ, who is otherwise rather quick to take notice of news items about alleged corruption in government institutions.
It was only after a campaign on social media and pressure from civil society that the CJ took notice of the acquittal and ordered the case to be reopened. While the suo motu and the apex court’s involvement in the case is a welcome development, it is time for our institutions to do their job without needing a reminder from civil society and media.
It is not possible for the civil society to be aware of every case of injustice and stand up for every victim. The news about members of the legal fraternity using their influence to save Shah Hussain was reported several times, but the authorities concerned paid no heed.
The chief justice, who is eager to bring reforms in other institutions, should also set his own house in order. Lawyers who tried to protect a convicted criminal should be taken to task by the CJ himself because such elements give a bad name to both the judiciary and the legal profession.
A few days ago, when politician Farooq Bandial briefly joined, and was expelled from, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), reports of actress Shabnam’s rape began circulating. Bandial, among others was convicted of raping Shabnam during a robbery at her house in 1979, but he was released after the victim reached a compromise under anti-women laws introduced by Zia-ul-Haq and forgave the perpetrators. Shabnam had to leave Pakistan after her rapists were allowed to walk as free men. She currently lives in Bangladesh.
Most of the youth in Pakistan is not even aware of the case, despite the huge travesty of justice done because of rape cases and sexual violence against women being conveniently brushed under the carpet. Shabnam is not the only woman whose rapists got away with the crime.
Rape victim Mukhtaran Mai who dared to report the crime despite her rural background could not get justice either. A three-member-bench of the court acquitted the accused in 2011 for ‘lack of evidence’. She pursued the case for nine years, but our broken justice system could not provide her relief. She is among the numerous Pakistani women (Benazir Bhutto, Asma Nawab, Aasia Bibi to name a few) who were failed by Pakistan’s criminal justice system.
It is pertinent to mention that CJ Saqib Nisar was on the bench that acquitted Mai’s rapists. Therefore, it is no surprise that the current judiciary has been unable to side with the female victims of violence. The justice system’s anti-woman approach must change. Since the CJ has taken it upon himself to fix all that is wrong with this country, he should do something about this as well.
Ailia Zehra is Assistant Editor, Daily Times.