Pakistan’s laws are capable of punishing criminals. Yet, outrageously, innocents are punished and criminals walk free. Acid throwing, or vitriolage – which works almost exclusively against women and is generally committed by jealous lovers, close family members or enraged husbands – is a seriously horrific crime and its victims are scattered all over Pakistan and other parts of South Asia. In the Pakistani context, an older post on this site by barrister Afzal Jafri is available here.
Fakhra Younus was a victim of acid violence. Prior to her tragic suicide on 17 March 2012 – Fakhra jumped off the 6th floor of a building in Rome – she left a message that she was taking her own life because her victimizer could not be brought to justice.
Fakhra was once married to Bilal Khar, she was his third wife, who was a Member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly and is the son of the PPP leader Ghulam Mustafa Khar (who himself was the Governor of Punjab and unusually had, or “kept” should one say?, eight wives).
Fakhra, who lived in Karachi’s infamous red light district of Napier Road and got married to Bilal Khar at the young age of eighteen, was an abused woman but when she left him he allegedly responded by pouring a bottle of acid on her face and body. (That too in front of her five-year-old son and other witnesses.)
After the horrific attack, Fakhra survived and was taken to Italy for treatment by Tahmina Durrani who was once married to Bilal Khar’s father Khar Senior in whose reverence – we’re being sarcastic of course – Durrani wrote the book My Feudal Lord. After Fakhra was granted asylum in Italy, Bilal Khar allegedly tried to restrict her exit from Pakistan by using his political clout.
Having surpassed his father’s exploits in oppression and cruelty, Khar junior was finally arrested for his alleged crime in late 2002 but he was slippery enough to manage to have himself released in 2003: that too for a small sum of money. He posted Rs 200,000 as bail. He is currently free enjoying his liberty in his feudal home in Kot Addu in Punjab. Contrary to the allegations advanced by Fakhra, Bilal Khar maintains that he was acquitted by a court exercising its criminal jurisdiction in accordance with the law.
The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act 2010 (“the Act”) was ushered in by Pakistan’s federal legislature with huge fanfare. This law, which introduced potential liability for up to 14 years’ imprisonment and Rs 1 million fine for criminal defendants charged with the crime of acid throwing, was widely perceived as a robust legislative measure created by female politicians to empower women victims of acid violence.
The truth is that even prior to the advent of the Act or the “new law”, the case for criminal liability against someone who inflicted grievous bodily harm on an innocent woman did exist under the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. If the intentionally inflicted harm caused death then the charge of murder is (and was) punishable, subject to the appropriate standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) by death. But on our facts, deplorably, the victim lies dead for the world to see, but the killer roams free unscathed. So woeful, or criminal should we say, is the negligence in our country. If the allegations made by Fakhra were false then we don’t know who dowsed her in acid? If it was not Bilal Khar then whoever it was should be caught. The law demands it.
The people who have driven the change in the law should ensure that acid violence cases are heard in the courts and potential criminal defendants in such matters do not routinely walk around freely. The new law should not be a cosmetic little manicured poodle on display for the political elite to list as an achievement when they canvass for votes in the next election. Rather, when the question whether or not they did something about Fakhra’s bid for justice is asked, the approach should be one where the present rulers of Pakistan can be held accountable.
Paying lip service to the victims of acid violence just isn’t enough. It’s ideal timing to make an example of criminals who did not hesitate to disfigure and mar women. Of course, like any other criminal defendant in Pakistan, such accused have the comfort of knowing that their “constitutional” to a fair trial (pursuant to Article 10A of the Constitution) will be respected in the event they are ever tried for what they did to helpless and innocent women.
It was really shocking that Bilal Khar came on national television yesterday saying that he had nothing to do with what happened to Fakhra and he wanted to help her find the culprit. He ran a defence of autorefois acquit – meaning that since he had been “acquitted” of throwing acid on Fakhra he could not longer be tried for the same offence again. In fact Bilal Khar does enjoy the protection of Article 13 of Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution, but whether that defence is available to him in light of the new law remains to be seen. He also appealed to the country, and the world, about taking his family life into consideration: he mentioned that he had three daughters whose lives were adversely affected by the negative publicity he got because of Fakhra’s case.
But the fact is that the Fakhra named Bilal Khar as her attacker and there is no compelling reason to doubt what she said. People who witnessed the crime have expressed concern over their safety and hence they are not very enthusiastic about giving evidence against Bilal Khar who is now also hiding behind the “double jeopardy rule”.
The difficulty for Pakistani politicians and lawmakers is that the country does not have the ability to implement the legal changes which the legislature introduces because our enforcement institutions don’t work properly.
Yet, given that entire populations in Tunisia (Mohammed Bouazizi remembered), Egypt, Yemen and Syria took to the streets out of sheer fury, the challenge for the Pakistani authorities is whether they can reconcile such horrific cases of brutality – allegedly committed by members of the country’s political elite such as Bilal Khar – with the impotence of the rule of law in our country?
As Pakistanis become better informed about the news and the law by reports in the media – such as Abid Hasan’s brilliant feature on Fakhra’s case on Geo News yesterday – one would like to believe that the government/state won’t hesitate in seizing the opportunity to do justice. But as the old adage goes, “the wheels of justice are slow to turn”.
Earlier in the year there was a lecture in Middle Temple by the South African judge Edwin Cameron. In fact, it was the fourth Leslie Scarman lecture and Edwin Cameron spoke masterfully about the process of legal change – which included matters such as granting land to the landless and state distribution of anti-retroviral drugs to AIDS/HIV patients – in South Africa. Judge Cameron’s conclusion was that it took years and years of hard work and determination for poor South Africans to get their rights: the judge himself suffered from AIDS but as he explained on a judge’s salary he was able to survive by taking anti-retroviral drugs to fight the disease.
Thus, Pakistanis would be well advised to take the South African experience on board and note that the change in the law won’t provide a quick fix for the victims of acid violence because it will take time to reform the police authorities and the courts to first catch the perpetrators of this abhorrent crime and then to punish them in accordance with the law: after all, even in England, the land of liberty, Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act 1998, it took almost two decades to bring the killers of black teenager Stephen Lawrence to justice. Hopefully Her Majesty’s government will help and train Pakistanis in its future activities in imparting justice to Pakistanis like Fakhra.
One would have to agree with ex-MNA Marvi Memon, one of the politicians who moved the private member bill which culminated into the law against acid violence, that much more needs to be done by the provincial governments for the law to be implemented and for criminals to be convicted within its framework. Equally, more will have to be done to ensure that capacity and expertise exist (in police stations, hospitals etc.) to ensure that evidence can be preserved in order for charges to be framed against the accused.
Apart from acid violence, the following activity under the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011 is criminalized and to:
- Force a woman into marriage for settling a dispute is a non-bailable offence
- Barter a woman to settle a dispute is punishable by three to five years’ imprisonment and mandates a fine of Rs 500,000
- Deprive a woman of her inheritance can lead to between five to ten years’ imprisonment or a fine of Rs 1,000,000 or both
- Force a woman to marry (other than in settling a dispute) is punishable by between three and ten years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 500,000
- Force a woman to “marry” the Holy Quran attracts three to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 500,000