Pakistan: Amend Abusive ‘Blood Money’ Laws

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Nazim Jhokio. 
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(New York) – The Pakistan government should amend provisions of the criminal law that treat murder and other serious offenses as private disputes, Human Rights Watch said today. These legal provisions, called “blood money” laws, allow and at times compel victims of serious crimes or their families to “forgive” suspects and drop criminal charges, typically out of fear of retaliation or in exchange for financial compensation.

“Blood money” provisions allow those accused of murder and other serious offenses to avoid criminal penalties, resulting in severe miscarriages of justice. Pakistan’s new government should promptly revise the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code provisions to end the practice for grave crimes.

“The Pakistan justice system’s treatment of murder as a private dispute sabotages the rights of victims to seek justice and of all Pakistanis to have equal protection of the law,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No state should act as a bystander in dealing with egregious crimes, which favors people accused of these crimes who are wealthy or powerful.”

In one example, on November 3, 2021, the severely bruised body of Nazim Jokhio, a local activist, was discovered at a farmhouse in Malir, Karachi, Sindh province. The farmhouse belonged to two brothers, Jam Abdul Karim and Jam Awais, both of whom are tribal chiefs and members of parliament. Days before his death, Jokhio had filmed foreign guests of the brothers hunting a houbura bustard, an endangered bird, and had asked them to stop. The brothers then summoned Jokhio to the farmhouse, where his body was later found.

After the killing sparked nationwide outrage, the police filed a criminal case against Karim and Awais. On March 30, Shireen Jokhio, the victim’s wife, posted a recorded video message on social media saying that she was “forgiving” the accused and would no longer pursue the case because she is “weak” and cannot fight the case “alone.” She also said that “justice can’t be served in Pakistan.” She reiterated the statement in court, and the court granted the two men bail.

In 1990, a Presidential Ordinance amended the Pakistan Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code ostensibly to make them more consistent with Islam following a court decision that held that murder and several other serious offenses should not be treated as offenses against the state but as private disputes.

The Ordinance went even further than the court decision, which had made a distinction between deliberate and unintentional murder and had allowed for the possibility of a “compromise” only in the case of unintentional murder. The Ordinance did not make such a distinction. In 1997, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government reenacted the ordinance as an act of parliament without any discussion or debate. While the courts at their discretion can disregard a “compromise” and proceed with a trial and conviction, this power is rarely exercised.

The Pakistani legal system’s treatment of murder cases as private disputes instead of as an offense against the state has had a disastrous impact on the administration of justice, Human Rights Watch said. In cases involving vast inequalities in the financial, social, and political resources between the suspects and the victims, the victims or their families will be under considerable pressure to accept a “compromise.” Several high-profile cases in recent years have highlighted the egregiousness of these laws.

In another such case, in July 2016, 26-year-old Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her brother, who said he killed her because he believed she “brought dishonor” to their family and tribe through her controversial online videos and statements. Baloch’s killing prompted a widespread outcry in Pakistan, leading to legislative action and the promise of prompt prosecution. Parliament passed a law imposing harsher punishments for so-called “honor killings” and partially eliminated the pardon loophole for these crimes. However, in February 2022, Baloch’s brother was acquitted after their parents “pardoned” him.

In September 2019, Salahuddin Ayubi, who had been arrested for robbing an ATM, was found dead in police custody. Ayubi’s body bore marks of torture. His family said he had mental health disabilities. His father filed a criminal case against three police officers alleging that his son was tortured to death, but in October 2019, Ayubi’s family “pardoned” the police officers and declined to prosecute the case.

In January 2011, Raymond Davis, a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor, shot dead two men at a Lahore traffic intersection. Davis was released from custody on March 16, 2011 after US officials paid compensation to the victims’ families.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is party, wrote in Concluding Observations on Yemen in 2005 that “[t]he preponderant role of the victim’s family in deciding whether or not the penalty is carried out on the basis of financial compensation (“blood money”) is … contrary to the Covenant.”

“There can be no rule of law in a country that abdicates its responsibility to provide justice for its most vulnerable citizens,” Gossman said. “Nazim Jokhio’s case should be treated as an opportunity by Pakistan’s new government to hold those responsible for this heinous crime accountable but also to amend the laws that enable injustice.”

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