PAKISTAN: Judge humiliates teenage rape victim in open court
The attitude of a Pakistani judge toward a teenage gang rape victim has caused widespread outrage, throwing the training of the country's judicial figures into question. On March 25, 2008, additional district and sessions judge Nizar Ali Khawaja conducted the trial of four men who allegedly gang-raped 13-year-old Ms Kainat Soomro in 2007, over a three day period in Dadu district, Sindh. The girl, who was expecting an in-camera trial (one in the judge's private chambers), was asked by the judge to describe and even demonstrate her rape in detail in front of the accused, Mr Shahban Sheikh, Mr Sheikh Ehsan, Mr Roshan Aleem and Mr Kaleemullah, all influential men who have all allegedly threatened and bribed Somroo's family to settle out of court. About a hundred spectators were also present, according to court journalists. "The room was jam-packed, people crowding at the back because everyone knew it was a rape case." noted a reporter from TheNews International.
Although public prosecutor Mr Maroof, asked that anyone unrelated to the case be told to leave, the judge sided with the defense counsel, which argued that he had no legal obligation to bar citizens from an open court. According to journalists and the prosecution, the cross-examiners and judge started to ask a string of invasive questions about the rape, which the teenager, who has had an extremely sheltered, conservative upbringing, struggled with. Sources at the trial noted that she was asked when certain items of clothing were removed, and exactly what actions were done to her when. When the girl replied, in a few instances, that she couldn't remember and felt out of her senses (having fainted), the judge berated her; speaking harshly about reports made by her family to the media. Witnesses have noted that he appeared to enjoy the invasive nature of the questions and the humiliation of the girl.
Objections from the special public prosecutor and assisting lawyers triggered an argument with the defense; the judge simply quelled them with a warning and adjourned the hearing to a later date, according to the Daily Dawn. In the years leading up to this trial the family have been forced to leave their home town due to threats, and have fought fiercely to get the case this far (police originally refused to register the FIR and public and media pressure saw it taken up).
Since the Women's Protection Act in 2006 reformed the law surrounding rape cases, more women have been encouraged to use the legal system, but the experience continues to be harrowing, partly due to the attitudes of those within it. Pakistan is already a harsh, patriarchal environment for women and this is no different within the courts.
"Judges have not been trained or sensitized to gender issues," says former Supreme Court Judge Nasir Aslam Zahid, who now runs the Legal Aid Office for women and children in prison in Sindh. "They say: 'how is this woman allowed to come to court?' The law has been made by men, courts are men, police are all male and when a court case involves a women, everything is against that woman." This attitude is a big deterrent; judicial and police figures are often unresponsive to female victims reporting crimes. Others go further: figures for the physical abuse of women in custody are high (117 were reported last by the Aurat Foundation but the number unreported cases are thought to be much greater). Female victims of rape or domestic violence are frequently too scared to go to court or seek redress, and so their general situation gets no better.
Soomro's case is just another warning cry, reminding Pakistan's women not to expect justice or fair treatment in court.
The cabinet of President Asif Ali Zardari considers itself committed to women's issues in Pakistan, but to be truly committed it must assess and take stronger measures. Just as police should be taught to deal professionally with sexual and gender-based violence, judges clearly need training so that they abandon old prejudices and are able to act humanely towards victims.
This is an obligation, rather than a choice. States are duty bound to protect and promote the rights of women and children under international human rights law. Pakistan has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which among other things, obliges it to protect those under the age of 18 "from all forms of physical or mental violence... negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation" and "take appropriate and effective measures to overcome all forms of gender-based violence, give adequate protection to all women and respect their protection and dignity."
When a judge cannot or does not show himself able to do this in his court for the most vulnerable of plaintiffs, one wonders what he is doing in the profession in the first place.