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Jirgas thrive in Karachi in clear defiance of state’s writ

Sep 29, 2017

KARACHI: On Aug 14 this year, the day Pakistan turned 70, a teenage girl from Ali Brohi Goth, which is in the suburbs of Karachi and a 10-minute motorbike ride away from the more popular Ibrahim Hyderi, was quietly buried in a graveyard in Sherpao Colony without any last rites performed for her. But then 15-year-old Bakht Taj didn’t deserve any such ceremony as she had brought dishonour to her Pashtoon tribe just like the 17-year-old-boy, Rehman, she had tried to elope with that day.

A melting pot of nearly 15 million people from different religions and ethnicities, Karachi is perhaps like any other metropolis — a city of myriad contrasts. But behind its facade of tall buildings, parks, flyovers and underpasses, which give it a modern look, it manages to hide well some of the ugly customs and practices that have stealthily crept in with the migrants who have lately made it their home.

An example is the speedy jirgas (tribal councils) that are opposed vehemently by human rights groups who say they issue decrees that persecute women, minorities and the financially weaker members of the society. The state has deemed them unlawful since 2004, but they continue to hold sway and influence, and deliver edicts that are often accepted unequivocally. Even serving parliamentarians are often seen acting as arbitrators of justice and presiding over these jirgas.

Every couple of months, the city reverberates with a horrific incident — usually when a jirga comes up with a particularly brutal way of teaching the condemned a lesson never to be forgotten. Like the latest murder of the two teenagers who ran away from home to get married but met a most vile and violent end.

Looking like a modern city, Karachi manages to hide many ugly practices that continue behind the scenes And it has had the desired result. “My Pakhtun friends in that goth feel what happened to the couple can happen to them as well; they are quite scared,” said 23-year-old Mehran Shah, a university student residing in Ibrahim Hyderi. Shah, like the slain couple, believes that “if two adults want to get married, they should have this right; it is their life, after all”. But he said the youths’ family members thrust their choice on them. “If the latter resist, it becomes an issue of ego,” he added.

The tribal council forced the parents of the young couple to kill them. But when the word got out, police arrested the fathers and uncles. During interrogation, the men revealed they had tortured the two with live electricity wires. The autopsy of the exhumed bodies carried out a month later confirmed this.

The police are now in pursuit of some 30 members of the jirga who have fled the area.

“What has really disturbed me is the severity of the murder,” said Maliha Zia Lari, associate director at the Karachi-based Legal Aid Society.

Educationist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy expressed similar views. “Such a gut-wrenching, barbaric murder of two young people in love should have brought thousands of protesters to streets. But no, large parts of Pakistani society still have plenty of tolerance for honour killings,” he said.

Lari said that social pressures “to resort to traditional dispute resolution mechanisms” in the absence of effective law and order and governance mechanisms “result in increased use and impunity of jirgas”.

Mohammad Ayub — a Pashtoon from Akora Khattak who has been living in Karachi for over 40 years — knows well about the jirgas taking place in the city. “People from the tribal areas are wary of going to courts where the cases go on forever. On the other hand, jirgas are able to give their verdict in just two days,” he said. “But they take a hefty amount in advance from both the parties and whichever side does not agree, their entire amount is confiscated. If their verdict is accepted, part of the advance is kept and the rest returned,” explained Ayub.

He said that for most Pashtoons residing in the city disputes are resolved by the jirgas. “Sadly, women can never be part of jirgas or even have a say in the matter, even if it directly affects them,” added Ayub.

Zohra Yusuf, former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that upon hearing about the twin murders she felt a sense of “utter helplessness” when she realised that “our struggle is perhaps not producing the desired results”.

But this case is rather different from the cases that one reads about in newspapers. What is unusual about it is the reluctance of the immediate families to carry out the ruthless verdict pronounced by the jirga and wanted to come to some settlement.

“The boy’s father tried his best to convince the tribal council that he would pay Rs2 million to the father of the girl, as well give away a daughter as Swara,” said Kamal Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a non-governmental organisation working in the area. Swara, deemed a crime by the state, is the tradition of sending a woman from the family as gift to the aggrieved family to put an end to a feud. But the jirga rejected the settlement and warned that if the two families did not carry out the barbaric deed, their families back in their native villages would have to bear the wrath of the Taliban.

"The event also highlights that the families may not want to participate in the punishment but are forced through social pressures," said Lari.

What is even more worrisome, she said, was that "four laws were broken with impunity" which include the child marriage restraint law, anti Swara laws, the anti-honour killing law and the anti-jirga. "It is a critique on civil society" that has for years been crying hoarse for this law and that but failed to work on "changing social attitudes and mindsets", she pointed out.

Given the propensity by the apex court to take matters in its hand, many look towards the Supreme Court to take suo motu notices when such crimes take place.

But Faisal Siddiqui, a Karachi-based lawyer finds court's intervention "tedious". "The court can't be expected to take up every case; it doesn't have the capacity," he added.

Instead, he said, the onus lay on the Inspector General of the Sindh police, the local commissioner and the local MPA to do something about it. "If these three join hands and strengthen each other, jirgas would never happen!" he said.

University student Shah, finds the jirga system misplaced as it has "caused more enmity than resolving conflicts" and said mediation was a better tool. "Mediators are independent unlike members of the jirga who can be biased towards one side," he said.

Mohammad Saeed, hailing from Bajaur, and working in Karachi for the last 15 years was also not in favour of jirgas, even in the tribal area as "the verdict is hardly in favour of the poor and the weak".

He had no clue that in February this year, a bill called Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) Bill-2016 was passed in the National Assembly. The law minister, Zahid Hamid, said the ADR system will settle 23 types of civil and criminal disputes.

Siddiqui said if properly regulated by court, these local adjudicating mechanisms can prove to be very effective, specially in settling tribal and family feuds. However, for crimes like honour killings and persecution of minorities, he said redressal should only be provided by the courts.

Lari, however, held a different opinion. She found it of concern that the state instead of strengthening the current justice sector, was creating "allowances" for jirgas. by giving it a legal cover," she said.

"While alternative dispute resolution does have a space in the justice sector framework, it is dangerous to argue that jirgas fall within its scope as they currently are," said Lari. She said ADR system were there to support and facilitate the parties in coming to a resolution "based on principles of equality of parties, mutual consent etc".

But jirgas, she said "acted as a court without having knowledge of law".

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2017

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