Pakistan: ‘Eye for an Eye’ Judgment Hailed, Denounced


For Fazeelat Bibi, 21, the last few days of 2009 have brought her some retribution, if not cheer. "Justice has been delivered," said the young woman, her voice void of any feelings. An anti-terrorism court in the Pakistani eastern city of Lahore, on Dec. 21, ordered the noses and ears of two brothers, Sher Mohammad, 27, and Amanat Ali, 29, to be cut off after doing the same to Bibi in September. The court also sentenced the brothers to life imprisonment and ordered them to pay 700,000 rupees (8,300 U.S. dollars) in compensation to the victim.

"Sher Mohammad is my first cousin and my father had spurned his marriage proposal. He threatened to take revenge (against me) for the humiliation (he suffered)," Bibi told IPS by phone from her hometown, Radhakrishna, in Kasur district of the Punjab province.

Expressing alarm over the "epidemic proportions" of violence against women, the United Nation’s Development Fund for Women reports that at least one out of three women around the world is "beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime."

According to Aurat Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working for women empowerment in Pakistan, between January and June this year, a total of 4,514 incidents of violence against women were reported. Of these, 3,099 cases were registered with the police, 759 cases were not while no evidence was found in the media regarding the FIR (first information report) status of the remaining 656 cases.

Najma Sadeque, a senior journalist and a women’s rights activist, said such forms [as the one Bibi experienced] of violence "including acid-throwing" are on the rise. Numerous media reports attest to this. "The fact is, men do this because they know they can get away with it," she said.

She conceded that a tit-for-tat punishment was tantamount to lowering oneself to the level of the criminal. "Up to a point I agree, but deterrence is needed against hardened people who have no respect for women and consider them beasts of burden and chattels," said Sadeque. "Without an effective punishment, things are not going to get any better."

On Sept. 28, around 6:30 a.m., five men, including the two convicted brothers, ambushed Bibi, as she was on her way home from a brick kiln, where she worked the night shift making bricks for a living.

"I was walking a little ahead of my father and my brother when these men surrounded me. Two of them wound a plastic wire around my neck to strangle me. I was semi-conscious when Sher Mohammad cut off my nose and ears with a knife, and then I lost all consciousness," narrated Bibi, her voice trailing off into a whisper as if re-living the gory episode in her life.

"Half an hour later, after seeing her daughter’s condition, Bibi’s mother succumbed to a heart attack and died," recounted her lawyer Ehtisham Qadir in a phone interview with IPS from Lahore.

The court’s judgment, though not the first of its kind, has generated vigorous discussions among concerned sectors, including rights groups.

I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, recalled similar ‘eye for an eye’ verdicts in the past. "Once a woman was struck in the head with a brick, a court ordered her to cause the same amount of pain to her tormentor." In many instances, he added, "amputation of arms or legs has been awarded (to the convicted criminal)."

In 2000, in a particularly grotesque case involving the serial killing of 100 young boys, a Pakistani court in Lahore prescribed death by strangulation with iron chains for Javed Iqbal, the perpetrator of the crime, and ordered him "cut into a 100 pieces and put in acid" the same way he killed his victims.

The sentence could not be executed as the convict died mysteriously while his appeal was pending. "This is the result of brutalising people by announcing eye-for-eye laws," said Rehman, expressing his disapproval of such punishments.

Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, an independent statutory body, echoed his view. Judgments based on ‘Qisas’ (translated as tit-for-tat retaliation based on Shariah, which calls for a punishment equal to the crime) and ‘Diyat’ (blood money paid to the victim’s family as compensation by the perpetrator) laws would be continually handed out "if Hudood laws remained unrepealed," she said. "The commission stands for the repeal of all discriminatory laws."

Hudood laws – ordinances based on Sharia that define punishments for certain offenses – have long been denounced by rights groups as being anti- women. Among others, these laws require women alleging rape to present four men of good standing or face a charge of adultery.

"It’s a sick joke!" said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia Researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), calling the "revenge ruling" a gross violation of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). Contending that the case was a purely criminal one, he said it should not have been tried in the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in the first place, which gave this "summary justice."

"If the punishment goes ahead, who will carry it out? Doctor’s won’t do it in the same brutal fashion unless it is carried out under anesthesia," said Sadeque.

A still more effective punishment, she said, is needed "if the message is to be driven home in a hurry," but she does not "see the male mentality changing any time soon."

"At the same time, it illustrates the pitiable state of the judiciary; they are totally incompetent to prescribe a punishment and reach a conviction in the light of the PPC!" said Hasan, adding justice must be delivered to both the victim and the perpetrator.

But there are others, including Bibi’s counsel, who approve of the court’s judgment.

"I fully support the judgment," said Qadir, who admitted he had sought a punishment under Qisas Law for his client. "It is in keeping with the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 299, Clause K." It provides punishments similar to the offense inflicted by the offender on the victim.

"It’s a male-riddled society where women are beaten, acid is thrown, ears and nose chopped off routinely at the slightest provocation or if a man thinks his honour has been sullied," said the criminal defence lawyer for 30 years. Until an "exemplary punishment is not given," such forms of violence will persist, he added.

Rejecting HRW’s contention about the case being tried in the ATC, Qadir explained that because the act of violence was brutal in nature, it amounted to terrorism and therefore could be tried in the ATC, claiming it ensures speedy justice.

Rights activist Samar Minallah is of two minds about the issue. "My mind rejects such barbaric forms of punishments, but my heart endorses it," said Minallah, who is known for her advocacy against the pervasive custom of ‘swara’, which allows young girls to be given away as peace offerings.

"Women in Pakistani society are still considered a commodity," she said. "Till violent acts against women are "not considered violent acts by the men at the helm, you cannot expect a sea change."

While pleased with the judgment in Bibi’s case, Mukhtaran Mai, who gained international recognition for taking her rapists to court in 2002, expressed doubts that it would be carried out.

"My only concern is if the punishment will take place," she said in a phone interview with IPS from her town, Meerwala, in Punjab province. If it does happen, it will set a "new precedence and others will think twice before carrying out these heinous crimes with such impunity."

"VAW [violence against women] has become too frequent in our society," said parliamentarian Yasmeen Rehman. "I’m sure such a punishment will help stem violence against women, but they are never carried through," citing undue delays that often dilute the sentence. "Personal and societal pressure is immense and often turns to softening of the judges."

Sadeque is sceptical. "I'm not so sure if the culprit will lose his appeal in the higher court, because of the wider male mentality that forgives men very easily, but not women."

KARACHI, Dec 31, 2009 (IPS)