PAKISTAN: Government must crack down hard on its Jirga courts and the extra-judicial murders they commit

In March 2008 a 17-year old girl in Sindh province was pressured by her uncle to convince her parents to hand over acres of farm land. On her refusal, the uncle and his accomplices brought in her father and made him watch as the girl was mauled by a pack of dogs and then shot. In May a Jirga was arranged in which the dead girl was posthumously declared ‘Kari’ (involved in an illicit relationship). The murderers were vindicated and a local man was forced to confess to being the illicit lover of the girl, and to pay Rs 400,000 as compensation.

The majority of the more barbaric human rights violations making their way out of Pakistan can be traced to the Jirga, court-like gatherings of tribal men which have been declared illegal by the superior courts in Pakistan. Despite this, over 4,000 people have reportedly died in Jirga-ordered murders over the last six years, two thirds of them women. Many of those involved in implementing Jirgas hold, or will likely go on to hold, places in Pakistan’s parliament.

In order to appreciate the destructive, random nature of the Jirga, its methods must be looked at. In a tribal court, witnesses and hearsay are the main forms of evidence and a verdict often rests on the reputation or power of a witness. Women are considered sexually corrupt, and their testimonies are never given any weight. In fact, in Jirga proceedings women are not allowed to participate. During a session spectators tend to gather, pick a side and heckle, putting pressure on the decision makers. Some spectators head to Jirgas for entertainment and needless to say, the most popular verdict may not always be a just one; it is difficult to reconcile justice with the will of an over-excited mob. In many instances, superstition also comes into play. In certain cases defendants have been told to walk on hot coals; if they feel and show no pain then they are deemed to be innocent. These are not conditions of a humane or rational system, and yet it is one that regularly deals out the death sentence.

The power of the Jirga has increased over the years because of failings in Pakistan’s existing legal system. Judgments can take years, even generations, and Pakistanis with small civil complaints often prefer to take the swifter route through local Jirgas because they have little faith in the system. It is from here that the Jirga’s advent into life and death judgments has grown. The likelihood of justice has become so bad that a Jirga-issued death sentence has become a way to resolve personal and political vendettas and property disputes (particularly by male family members who resent losing property to another family through the marriage of a woman relative).

One of the main problems in combating Jirgas is its defense under the umbrella of custom. When one case of eight women who were buried alive came to light, two Pakistani senators (Israrullah Zehri and Jan Mohammad Jamali) defended the act as an example of Baloch tradition. This word ‘tradition’ conjures up wholesome, age-old, culturally rich practices that are under threat from secular or western values. One obvious question is whether the terms ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ should apply to arbitrary, extra-judicial killings. Another would be to note that upon Islam’s birth in 7AD the faith was a force against the live burial of female babies – common at that time. The Quran does not support such murders. However, these murders are committed in its name. The justification of such murders in the name of the Quran needs to be questioned and exposed. Actual development of such practices of murder have more to do with property disputes and the very distortion of the tribal practices themselves in order to support injustices and discrimination against women. What takes place as Jirgas today are mob trials, manipulated by the rich, powerful and male elements. At one time Jirgas may have had some very legitimate aspects of tribal dispute settlement. However, what is found today is an aberration of such systems to justify cruelties that would not have been acceptable to tribal people in the earlier stages of history.

To combat extra-judicial crime in Pakistan – especially those committed under the auspices of religion – will be no mean feat, but it will begin with the development of a strong, unified judiciary. Political will is required for curbing this menace; a clear signal should be sent that the constitutional law of Pakistan needs to be respected. There must be a serious and competent crackdown on Jirgas. Those conducting them must be punished and brought before the law, without exception. Those who have killed through Jirgas must be tried for murder because a country should have only one law for murder, without distinctions or impunity.

There are several men now serving in parliament who have at one time been a part of Jirga courts and they may object to the questioning about the Jirga system and its abuse of power. Those who have a public record of having taken part in Jirgas which have authorised cruel acts should be banned from holding public officer. Those who are already in office must be held accountable.

The legal rights of the relatives of murder victims must be recognized and acted on. This includes the right to an investigation and trial. Under Article 2 of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), which Pakistan has signed, the state is obliged to protect rights and provide remedy for victims of rights violations. Those who carry out extra-judicial violence must be forced to see that it will no longer be tolerated. Circumstances must be created which will convince the victims that there are viable means to assert their rights within a framework of justice.

To make sure that these steps are taken an independent monitoring body needs to be established, funded and given free reign.

It is a government’s responsibility to educate, and a strong educational network must be created that can work against what has become an entrenched bad practice, particularly in northern tribal areas which remain isolated ideologically from the rest of the country.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-281-2008
Countries : Pakistan,