Fair trial concerns plague Pakistan sexual assault cases

Family and lawyer of Pakistani man executed for rape and murder of six-year-old girl say he never received a fair trial.

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    People chant slogans to condemn the rape and killing of six-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]
    People chant slogans to condemn the rape and killing of six-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

    Kasur, Pakistan - Imran Ali, 24, was executed on October 17, 2018, for the rape and murder of a six-year-old Pakistani girl. But a year after his execution, questions remain whether Ali received a fair trial in what became the country's most high-profile child and sexual assault case in more than two decades.

    Ali, a daily wage labourer, was arrested after the rape and murder of Zainab Ansari, a case that generated outrage across Pakistan and quickly saw an angry populace - and Ansari's family - demanding he be hanged in public.

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    In a country where investigations and legal cases usually last for years, and sometimes decades, Ali was arrested, tried and sentenced in less than a month. The trial lasted four days.

    Lawyers say that while Pakistan's laws in this area have been strengthened, given systemic weaknesses, two almost paradoxical situations coexist: it is difficult to prosecute alleged harassers and abusers, but if public outcry is generated around complaints it is also simultaneously often difficult for them to receive a fair trial.

    Ali's case is emblematic of the problems Pakistan's legal and investigative systems pose when it comes to cases of sexual assault. Similar issues are reported from across the South Asian region, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

    Since 2004, there have been four executions in India. Of these, one was for the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Sri Lanka has not executed prisoners in years, as the last hanging in the country was over three decades ago.

    In Pakistan, meanwhile, 18 people have been executed after being convicted of rape, sometimes with additional charges such as murder, since 2015.

    An emblematic case

    Zainab, the youngest of Nusrat and Amin Ansari's four children, lived in Kasur, about 50km south of the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, the country's second-largest city.

    On January 4, 2018, Ansari was walking down the lane near her home on her way to Quran reading classes when she disappeared, minutes after leaving her house.

    Family members searched for Zainab all over the city, only to find her body five days later. It had been dumped in a pile of rubbish near their home.

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    Zainab's murder came to embody the deeply entrenched issue of child sexual abuse in Pakistan, where nearly 10 cases of child abuse are reported every day, according to child rights organisation, Sahil.

    The killing prompted countrywide protests, with Ansari's family leading calls for Ali - who was arrested two weeks after the body was found - to be publicly hanged, well before his trial had even begun.

    Pakistan is among the top executioners in the world. According to a report published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan last week, the country's courts have sentenced 1,800 convicts to death since December 2014, with 520 people of these having already been executed. There is no provision in Pakistani law for a public hanging.

    In recent years, Pakistan has enacted new laws to help prosecute cases of sexual violence. In 2016, for example, the country made amendments to laws to make a woman's sexual history inadmissible as evidence to question their credibility as a witness or accuser.

    Sexual violence cases can now only be investigated in the presence of a female police officer, or a female family member if a female officer is not available.

    The legal system now also provides protection against workplace harassment, although whether it manages to provide fair outcomes remains questionable, say lawyers who prosecute such cases.

    Numerous cases are working their way through the legal system, each seen as a test of whether the new laws will be applied in letter and spirit by police, investigators, prosecutors and judges.

    Fair trial concerns

    Ali's family and one of his lawyers say he did not receive a fair trial, and that he was denied basic rights of legal due process. His court-appointed defence lawyer at the trial court says he is guilty.

    "The first time we met [Ali] was after nine months, on October 16th, a day before he was hanged," says Parveen Bibi, Ali's grandmother.

    Asad Jamal, a prominent rights lawyer who took up Ali's case on appeal at the Lahore High Court, says he suspected something was not quite right because of how quickly the investigation progressed.

    "By the time I met him, he had already been awarded a death sentence," says Jamal, whose many requests to meet Ali were denied or ignored.

    "When I met Imran Ali, he took a while to speak to me as he was surprised that anyone had come to visit him," Jamal recalls. "In his conversation with me, he said that a senior police officer had told him that if he confesses to the rape and murder of these young girls, he would be given a lighter sentence. 

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    Ali told Jamal that police had warned him that if he stepped out of the prison a mob would kill him, and possibly his family.

    The case was tried by Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) behind closed doors, with no journalists or independent observers allowed to witness proceedings. Pakistan's anti-terrorism laws are broad in their definition of terrorism, and rape cases - especially high-profile ones - are often tried in this way.

    Ali's state-appointed counsel at the trial court was proposed by the prosecution, says Jamal. That lawyer, however, maintains that his client was guilty.

    "I put my life at risk by taking this case and this case made history," said Mehar Shakeel Multani, Ali's lawyer at the ATC. "This was undoubtedly a fair trial. Imran Ali confessed himself and the CCTV footage and DNA clearly implicated him."

    According to the court's verdict, Ali's counsel did not challenge any of the evidence against him, including his confession. Rights organisations have documented the systematic use of torture by police in Punjab province, where Kasur is located, to extract confessions from suspects.

    On appeal, Jamal says people were "shocked" to see Ali represented by a lawyer.

    "When I asked for two weeks time to prepare my case, the judge said I don't even have two hours to give you," said Jamal.

    At the Supreme Court, proceedings lasted 15 minutes before Ali's death sentence was upheld. Ali was hanged to death at the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore four months later.

    Accusers finding themselves accused 

    Despite the fact that Ansari's rape and murder led to nationwide protests and attention, lawyers say it has not become any easier to get justice in cases of sexual harassment or abuse.

    A year into the #MeToo movement gaining momentum in Pakistan, many prominent cases have led to defamation charges being filed against those who accuse men of harassment or assault.

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    One of the most prominent cases is that of Meesha Shafi, a prominent Pakistani singer. Shafi accused Ali Zafar, also a prominent singer, of sexually harassing her when they worked together.

    Her case was dismissed by a government official tasked with investigating such cases, however, with the official ruling that since Shafi was not employed by Zafar she could not file charges against him at that forum. Shafi has appealed the decision, and is facing defamation charges filed by Zafar.

    "The threat of defamation has deterred people from speaking out on social media or otherwise about sexual harassment," says Sara Malkani, a lawyer and Asia advocacy adviser at the Centre for Reproductive Rights. "The effect is to silence people who have spoken out about harassment they faced directly, as well as those expressing solidarity with survivors."

    A similar trend is visible in neighbouring India. After Mobasher Jawed Akbar, a former minister who still serves as a parliamentarian, was accused of sexual assault, he filed a criminal defamation case against one of the many accusers.

    The outrage in the Ansari case in Pakistan appeared to have to do with the fact that justice is rarely seen to be done in such cases, but lawyers say little has substantively changed since.

    "The attitudes of investigation authorities are very problematic," says Malkani, adding that victims and their families are often harassed for money while carrying out the investigation or pressured to "compromise" with the accused.

    "As a result, it becomes impossible to get convictions for many cases due to the absence of credible evidence."

    Pakistani police however, defended its investigation in the case. "This was a very successful investigation," Regional Police Officer at the time, Zulfiqar Hameed, told Al Jazeera.

    "We managed to trace the main accused and close the case in a matter of weeks. This was also a very challenging case because there was a lot of pressure on us," he said.

    Back in Kasur, residents of the small town say they feel satisfied with the outcome of Ali's trial, conviction and hanging.

    Ali's family has returned to his small red-brick home, after fleeing violent attacks following his arrest.

    "They lost their girl, we lost our boy," says Parveen Bibi, Ali's grandmother.

    Bibi speaks haltingly of Ali, continuously retracting statements because, she says, she fears the media and social backlash for questioning her grandson's conviction.

    "Only God knows what happened. God will do justice."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News