October Issue 2015
Law of the Jungle
Ameer Haider Shah, an advocate of the Sindh High Court and a former joint secretary of the Karachi Bar Association (KBA), was shot dead on August 28, on a busy highway near Hassan Square. The murder appeared to be a target killing and was captured on a CCTV camera. The footage showed three men riding on a motorbike and escaping amid heavy traffic.
The killing triggered countrywide protests and calls for strikes from lawyers’ associations furious at the government’s inability to provide foolproof security to lawyers. “Almost 60 lawyers have been targeted and hardly any progress has been made in the investigations into these cases. Only in a few cases have the killers been apprehended and that too only because of pressure from lawyers,” said Naeem Qureshi, president of the KBA. Qureshi also criticised the way Shah’s murder was handled, saying his sect or involvement in land grabbing cases should not have been raised as possible motives. “Lawyers are professionals, and have no political or sectarian bias. It is inappropriate to link this incident to sectarian killings,” said Qureshi. A news report had claimed Shah was formerly associated with the Imamia Students Organisation and had once been its divisional president in Sukkur.
The day after Shah’s killing, lawyers went on a strike, staged rallies, marched towards the Chief Minister’s House and Rangers headquarters and also boycotted court proceedings. It was only after meeting the Rangers Director, Major General Bilal Akhtar, that they ended the strike. A six-member delegation of the KBA, headed by Qureshi, expressed their concerns to Akhtar and requested an investigation into the target killings. Akhtar promised to form a committee to investigate the murder and ordered the formation of a special task force headed by a lieutenant colonel to look into threats being received by bar members.
In return, the lawyers expressed their confidence in the Rangers and said no lawyers will defend target killers. The DG Rangers appreciated that sentiment but the statement was hushed up after it was harshly criticised on social media. A young lawyer, wondering how anyone in the legal fraternity could agree to stop defending those accused of crimes, referred to a famous quote by Charles Dickens, “If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.” He further said that just because the Rangers had arrested a person and declared him a target killer does not necessarily make him one.
On September 12, the Rangers claimed they had shot down the murderers of Ali Hasnain Kazmi, an advocate who was killed in March. Kazmi was a member of the MQM’s legal aid committee and had been very active in pursuing the cases of MQM workers who had allegedly been picked up by law enforcement agencies. The men allegedly killed by the Rangers were also workers of the MQM, and the party claimed they had been picked up by the Rangers in April and May. The Rangers denied this accusation and said that the men had been hidden in MQM safe houses to avoid arrest and they only found them after getting a tip-off from intelligence agencies.
Qureshi deflected the blame away from the lawyers for their failure in ensuring the conviction of accused murderers, saying poor investigation techniques were at fault for the low conviction rate. “When you hire incompetent investigators you cannot blame others for the acquittal of accused criminals. I can give you figures till 2013; there is a 99 per cent acquittal rate in such cases. It shows how poorly the cases have been prepared.”
Another lawyer further says, “There is a clear imbalance between the bench and the bar. Judges feel under pressure when politically influential lawyers appear before the courts; they manage to get favours from judges.” A newly-minted lawyer added, “Junior lawyers get flak from both clients and judges, as they have to go through the lengthy process of fulfilling the tiniest of formalities and bribe the lower staff at every stage. And the worst treatment comes from senior lawyers, who barely pay new entrants any money for all the hard work they do.”
The bar associations are no better. A lawyer said, “For those contesting bar elections, junior lawyers are like herds of sheep who can be pushed to either side by luring their seniors or those leading their respective ethnic or political groups, who then make them vote for a candidate of their choice. You may have heard of ghost teachers and ghost employees at various government departments. We have ghost lawyers — those who had the qualifications and licenses but are doing private jobs that have nothing to do with the law. Their votes can be bought by paying annual membership fees and other charges on their behalf.” He added, “In every bar election, hundreds of these ghost lawyers play a decisive role.”
A female lawyer from a remote district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who had been working in Karachi for many years, also complained about the misogynistic environment and sexual harassment faced by young female lawyers. “I had to bear a hostile attitude from male lawyers and a lack of faith from clients.”
A former militant from FATA compared Karachi city courts to the market of illicit drugs and weapons at Darra Adamkhel saying, “Even Darra had fewer irregularities and illicit practices than the city courts. If someone nabbed by the law enforcement agencies was referred to the city courts, they would also be acquitted or released on bail since there are lawyers who we had on contract to get our men out of prison and we would pay them a lump sum for their work. All you need is the ability to pay off lawyers.”
Naeem Qureshi says that the situation has improved with the involvement of the Rangers but not everyone agrees with that assessment. Another lawyer says, “If the Rangers had brought about an improvement, why would they need assurances from lawyers that they will not defend those accused of violence or terrorism?”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order