As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied, and this is an issue that can be plainly seen in its worst manifestation in Pakistan, every single day.
In Pakistan people have to wait years and years in order to have their cases heard. In most blasphemy cases the accused wait for 5-10 years, and some waiting longer than a lifetime for a ruling to be given. It is even more painful when at the end of this arduous process the person is proven innocent and nobody takes responsibility for the delay or provides an explanation as to why an innocent person was left to suffer.
Last October, a young man named Wajih Ul Hassan was acquitted by the Supreme Court after 18 years due to lack of evidence. He was expected to move on with his life without anyone being held accountable, no remorse being shown and no justifiable explanation as to how this happened and how it will be avoided in the future.
It is unlikely that he will be compensated for being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. This is not only unfair but no authority figure has issued an official apology. I met Wajih during his hearing in the Lahore Session Court when he was a young boy and in bad condition. The horror of facing a lifetime prison sentence was apparent on his face and the image of that moment will never leave me. In another well-known case, Asia Bibi was acquitted after nine years by the Supreme Court. When she was incarcerated several petitions were signed and the international community called for her release, but it took nine years for any action. People simply assumed that after she was released, she would be able to gather her life back together. The frightening fact is that this is not a unique case; there are too many examples of people being punished without evidence or a fair hearing because they are accused of committing blasphemy. The actions that are taken to incarcerate these people without access to a timely hearing means that a long prison sentence appears to be the norm.
The frightening fact is that this is not a unique case; there are too many examples of people being punished without evidence or a fair hearing because they are accused of committing blasphemy
These two cases must be taken as test cases and those responsible should consider reforming laws where necessary to avoid lengthy delays that cause undue upset and suffering. However, nothing has been done in this regard and nothing seems to be set to change. Rather than believing that people are innocent until proven guilty, they are instead considered guilty without a hearing, leaving them deprived of their right of justice and right to life.
The most horrifying fact is that they are not even safe in jail. Yousaf Ali, Finish and Samuel are only a few who have been killed in prison, whilst some have survived like university lecturer, Junaid Hafeez. Hafeez has been attacked several times, and his lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot dead in 2014. He is imprisoned in central jail Multan for the last seven years with no hope for an acquittal anytime soon as he has been sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court. His lawyer has submitted an appeal in the Supreme Court but no one knows when his appeal will be fixed for hearing and how many more years he will have to suffer locked away in prison.
Pastor Zaffar Bhatti has been imprisoned since 2012 and has faced several attempts on his life at the prison including an incident of poisoning in 2013 and an assassination attempt in 2014. His hearing has been adjourned at least a dozen times without any reasonable justification. The court hearing of Sawan Masih, who has been in prison since 2013, has been adjourned several times for reasons such as the judge hasn’t attended, there is a lawyers’ strike, the complainant is not present and even the prosecutor hasn’t attended. No doubt the prisoner and his family have been affected emotionally, psychologically, financially, and morally. They face hatred every day in society both verbally and physically, suffering because of a delay in hearing his case.
People like Imran Gafur, who has already spent 10 years in prison, and several others, deserve a fair trial. I have attended a few court hearings and I know how scared the families are but I also recognise how appalling it is for a person to be kept imprisoned for years, not accessing their right to a fair trial.
This problem is not hidden and both the government and the judges claim to recognise the problems facing the judiciary. At the inaugural ceremony of a six-day training course being held for judges at Judicial Academy in Lahore, the chief justice of Lahore High Court, Mamoon Rashid Sheikh said that the provision of timely justice is the judiciary’s top priority.
The former Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa said, last year, that if 25 per cent of the vacant positions of judges are filled, that backlog of pending cases could be wrapped up within a year or two. This poses the question of how they plan on filling these vacant positions and whether they are committed to solving some of the longest standing cases.
Last year the Federal Minister for Law and Justice Barrister Mohammad Farogh Naseem said that amendments in civil law would be introduced to speed up the pace of pending cases to improve the efficiency of the judicial system. There is a great need for more reforms to be introduced in criminal cases as hundreds of people are suffering in jails because of minor crimes and false cases against them. This is certainly true for blasphemy cases where the lives of the accused and their families are always at risk. With no single international rule on how long cases should take, each case must be considered on its own merit. However, in many countries five years is considered too long, and according to some jurists delayed justice is injustice. According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ‘everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time’. The notion of a fair and timely trial goes back as far as the Magna Carta, which stresses the principal of timely justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) contains a similar provision which applies to all its states parties and Pakistan is one of them. Unfortunately, there seems to be a blurred view on what constitutes a fair and timely trial in Pakistan and there is no clarity on whether there is any specific threshold set in Pakistan.
According to a report of the International commission of Jurists (ICJ) people accused of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws face proceedings that are flawed, with an investigation and prosecution that do not meet due diligence requirements under the law. Pakistan’s own constitution speaks about the due process and seems to go against what we currently see happening in the country.
It is reasonable for both the state and the judiciary to provide timely justice and a major obligation lies with the courts. They must ensure whether the delay prejudices the defendant or creates a risk of not a having a fair trial, especially when the person’s life is at risk in jail. I believe that in using due diligence and keeping in view international standards in most cases and especially in the blasphemy cases undue delay can be avoided, and timely justice could be ensured.