Interview: Justice (R) Nasir Aslam Zahid

With more than 1.6 million cases pending in the courtsNewsline turned to Justice (R) Nasir Aslam Zahid, former chief justice of the Sindh High Court, to understand the causes of this backlog and what can be done to alleviate it.

What do you think are the main reasons for so many cases endlessly pending in court?

I don’t believe there are too many cases pending in court. In Sindh, we have less than 100,000 – maybe about 80,000 or 90,000 cases. Look at the population of Karachi; we are 20 million people. In India, there are 30 million cases pending in court.

Isn’t that but natural given that their population is much larger than ours?

No, just look at the figures: Out of a population of one billion Indians, 30 million makes for 3 per cent cases. In Pakistan, with a population of 180 million, if the pendency is 1 million cases, that’s less than 2 per cent of the population. So our pendency rate is much, much lower than India’s.

But haven’t many of these cases been pending in court for years?

That is another point. There are several factors that contribute to this issue. The judiciary is at fault. The investigation agencies – the police – are at fault. Even the litigants are at fault. Our entire society is fault. People think that every case will take ages in court. If they knew a case would be decided within a year or within three months, then people would be more careful about engaging in criminal activities. It’s the same in India. I just read in a book somewhere that one land dispute case has been pending in court for 260 years. It began in 1750 and it’s still pending.

But let’s come back to Pakistan…

Pakistan’s situation is manageable. My view is that there is light at the end of the tunnel if everyone commits to changing the system – especially the government. Right now most of all, I blame the government for the current state of affairs. Till the government doesn’t give priority to the judiciary; till it doesn’t provide funds, nothing can move forward. But of course, this need is not only confined to the judiciary, it applies to every aspect of life, especially the police and other government administration departments.

Hazrat Ali said that the ‘best’ man should be chosen for the position of chief justice. He maintained that this judge should be ameen and shareef (pure and decent) and then with his consent other judges should be appointed. Then those judges should be given such respect that even the head of the state –the Khalifah – should appear before him. There is no mention by him of any provision such as Article 248 which gives exemption to the President and the governor from appearing before the chief justice. Hazrat Ali deemed that a judge should be given all the necessary facilities – a really good package – so that when he is sitting in court he should be concerned about nothing but serving justice. But look at how it is in our courts. The electricity often goes and the judges sit in the heat, sweating, and often writing by hand because the stenographer doesn’t know any English.

Till a judge is given enough facilities things cannot improve. A judge should be given so much money that he is able to send his children abroad to study. He should be made so comfortable that he’s not bothered about other things and is only concerned about what goes on in the cases he’s involved with. Our country’s problem is that there is no sense of priority and I’m not specifically blaming the present government or the PPP, PML-N, PML-Q or anyone. What I’m saying is that no government since 1947 – here or in India – has given the judiciary the priority that it should be awarded particularly in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If you look at the Quran, the word meezan (tarazu) has been mentioned many times. It talks about the need for justice; the need for social justice, but no one is willing to give it that priority.

Do you think this state of affairs is also largely due to a shortage of judges?

My personal view is that if I had more time with each case, I’d have more than a large number of these cases settled. For example, in civil cases, if the case is regarding a dispute, you can’t read the entire file because you have 50 or 100 cases to hear that day. If I had more time to give to each civil case, I would have disposed of at least two or three every day.

When I was a new judge in the High Court, I was reading a case file and in it I found a letter which stated that the defendant had agreed to give the money he owed, but later refused to pay. Four years after the fact, the case came to me and I asked the two clients to come to the bench. I asked them if they were willing to settle and both parties refused. Then I asked them about the letter. The lawyers objected, but I told them I had the power to discuss the cases with both parties before the trial started. I showed them the letter; I asked the defendant to tell me if this letter had really been written by him. I told him that it was up to him whether to answer or not, and he informed me that he did indeed write that letter. So I said that meant he had agreed to pay the amount involved. He disagreed and said he’d like to fight this in court. But I did not relent and told him that since he had acknowledged writing the letter I was going to pass judgement based on admission and he had to pay. The lawyers, of course, objected vociferously and finally managed to have the sum involved reduced. Ultimately both the parties agreed on the amount. I gave that case about 30 to 45 minutes. But when you have 50 or 100 cases a day, the judge subconsciously feels strained because he knows he can’t spend that much time on each case.

You stated earlier that the number of pending cases is the fault of the judiciary and the fault of lawyers. Why do you think it is their fault?

It’s much more than that. If the police doesn’t investigate a criminal case properly then the entire system falls apart. Why do you think there aren’t enough convictions? Even of the cases that are fought, the conviction rate is only 2-3%.

But that is due to the deplorable state our criminal justice system is in. Just look at how poorly an SHO is paid. Furthermore, appointments are often political. The judiciary should be involved in this selection process and a commission should be made. The commission should select these people. Unfortunately, often, even if a commission is made, the people heading it are themselves politicised. Instead of them if you had good judges at the helm of these commissions things would be different.

Do you agree with the common perception that many judges are corrupt?

What I mean when I say ‘judges are politicised’ is that that there is this fear, this pressure on judges that makes them ask ‘if I take this decision what will happen?’ The judge who was handling Mumtaz Qadri’s case has had to leave and settle in Saudia Arabia. I believe he applied for asylum because he was afraid he might be killed.

Now in this situation, I must reiterate that it is the government’s responsibility. Just take the Yaum-e-Ishq-e-Rasool incident. Did they not have knowledge of what could happen in advance? Couldn’t they have controlled it? I hear that the rangers were absent that day; the police was also standing on the sidelines. The political will was not there.

I work with prisoners. Our courts are about 6 miles from the Central Prison. They give these prisoners breakfast in the morning and then take them to court and bring them back at 5pm. They handcuff them and lock them up in a van and take them to court. And if their families or friends are not there to feed them while they wait for their hearings, they end up starving till the evening. And did you know there are no toilets in city courts? Not for men, not even for women.

Today 12% of the people who are involved in criminal trials are in jail waiting for their hearings. They are called under trial prisoners and constitute those involved in crimes of serious offence such as murder, kidnapping for ransom, or gang-rape case and have been denied bail.

How many judges do you think are needed to ease the current caseload?

In America and Canada there are between 100 and 110 judges per million people. In Pakistan and India we have 10 judges for that same number of people. That alone is such a colossal difference. Forget about the competency of the judges, even if there are 100 Iftikhar Chaudhrys on these cases, there still won’t be justice.

Do you think there are alternate means of settling these cases out of court – other systems that could be implemented in Pakistan?

In New York they have night courts but that won’t be acceptable in our culture. Also, in England, they have adopted a method in which, before going to court , a barrister or solicitor writes to the other party and inquires if they are willing to mediate and then if the other party is willing, they try to settle it out of court. You can even call in a senior barrister or a retired judge and have him mediate cases out of court, or at least suggest how the case can be handled. His decision isn’t binding, but both parties can get an idea of what kind of a decision the court might present. These are methods of settling a dispute outside of the judicial system.

Do you think lawyers are to blame for frivolous litigation they often engage in?

In the lower courts lawyers can charge 100 rupees for each hearing in a case. So the longer a case goes on the more money they earn from it. But the lawyers do not represent a privileged community – they represent the state of society. If there’s an overall degradation of values, then it will obviously impact lawyers as well.

The judge has the power to penalise those involved in filing frivolous litigation. Doesn’t that put the judges at fault too?

A judge can write to the Bar Council for misconduct. But that doesn’t happen because even over there, lawyers are present. So why would a lawyer disqualify one of his own? You will not find a single case where a lawyer has disqualified another lawyer.

What about the ever-increasing ‘judicial activism’ manifest in strikes, demonstrations and protest marches?

I believe these strikes should not happen. My view is that if they feel they have a good reason to call a strike then they should do so for an hour at most, or after 1.00 pm when the courts close.

[These strikes and court shutdowns] cause clients a lot of problems.

Do you think the implementation of the National Judicial Policy has proved helpful?

It can’t work without the government’s commitment. Unless the government gives you support, nothing can work.

This interview was published in Newsline Magazine in October 2012


Helping hand: Several Szabist students pledge to donate organs

KARACHI: Several students of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology pledged to become organ donors after attending a seminar on Wednesday.

Soon after they heard Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi of the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) present dismal statistics on organ donation in the country, several students rushed to the booth set up outside the hall and enrolled in the SIUT donor programme. He was speaking to students and the media at a seminar on ‘Deceased Organ Donation’ at the institute.

Dr Rizvi revealed that Pakistan needs on an average 25,000 kidneys, 8,000 hearts and 12,000 livers every year and over 50,000 Pakistanis die of organ failure every year. Deceased organ donation may strike to many as a noble cause but few actually step up and sign up to be donors, he regretted.

Organised by Szabist Social Sciences Department and SIUT, the event sought to remove any preconceived notions that students may have about transplantation and urged them to learn more through the organ donation booth set up at the seminar. Dr Rizvi took questions from the students to give them a clearer picture about transplantation and urged them to continue creating awareness about the procedure. “We have passed the baton on to you,” he said.

“The purpose of organising events such as these is to create awareness and get people to trust in organ donation again,” pointed out Dr SA Anwar Naqvi, a professor of the department of urology and transplantation at SIUT. For two decades, Pakistan was notorious for being the world’s leading ‘transplant tourism’ destination where serpentine organ brokers and private hospitals made a fortune selling kidneys to international buyers, he told The Express Tribune.

The introduction of the 2007 transplantation of human organs and tissue ordinance prohibited commercial organ donation, legalised deceased organ donation and disallowed donations to foreigners in an effort to stop this illegal practice, he added.

The ordinance, passed in 2010, has given organisations, such as the SIUT, a chance to change people’s perception about organ transplantation and encourage them to become organ donors. “Organ transplantation should be about sharing not selling,” said Dr Naqvi.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2014.

Afghanistan 2014: Consequences for Pakistan

KARACHI: 2014 is going to be a telling year for the future of the security and stability in Afghanistan as the United States sets to withdraw its forces from the country and the presidential elections, scheduled in April, loom closer with each day.

As President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign the bilateral security agreement, and the Obama administration threatens to pull all of its forces out of Afghanistan in the absence of the agreement, the future for the country, it seems, remains unclear.

Last year’s panel discussion on Aghanistan in 2014 and its resulting consequences for Pakistan, panelist and Pakistani diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khan had stated rather ambiguously that “the crystal ball is opaque.” Well, the crystal ball is foggier now than ever.

Will Afghanistan be able to stand on its own feet or will it inadvertently revert back to the state before the foreign occupation? With the presidential election so close and the US as yet to be in agreement with the Afghan government on maintaining its forces post-2014, will they be able to reach an agreement before the elections? And most importantly, what will the resulting consequences be for Pakistan?

Former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom and former two-time ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, quoted Allama Iqbal to emphasise the importance of stability in Afghanistan for Pakistan. The national poet once referred to Afghanistan as the ‘heart of Asia’.  She paraphrased the poet who was of the view that “conflict in Afghanistan means turmoil in the entire neighbourhood and peace in Afghanistan means prosperity for all of Asia.” She summarised, “challenges are enormous and the uncertainty is great.”

Former Pakistani diplomat Najmuddin Shaikh rendered a gloomy picture for Afghanistan and as a result of Pakistan. The presence of the US was generating a great deal of economic activity for the people of Afghanistan. For example, the high paying jobs at NGOs that were previously available for the locals are going to disappear and the people in search of employment prospects  will begin to think of ways out of the country. “In the best of circumstances, we will be faced with the influx of another 2 million refugees.” Shaikh also says if there is no US aid the deterioration will be even greater.

Shaikh paints a grim future for the Afghan National Security Forces (AFNS). The US have currently pledged to contribute $4.1 billion for the AFNS which currently stands at 350,000 soldiers. The funds provided will be able to maintain just about 230,000 soldiers, which would mean that unless the US puts up an additional $ 2 billion – which remains highly unlikely – or that the remaining 120,000 soldiers will be dismissed and on the street with their only remaining skill to offer being knowledge on how to wield a gun.

The consensus remained that the refugee problem will be an inevitable outcome of the withdrawal and Pakistan will need to be prepared.

Secret guest at KLF was US Ambassador Richard Olson

Curiously vague in the KLF programme, the Sunday session titled ‘The US-Pakistan relationship: will it endure?’ listed Dr Ishrat Husain as the moderator but the panellist’s space was left blank. As the session began, US ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson entered the stage to Dr Hussain’s introduction of his mysterious appearance as an apparent ‘last-minute surprise addition’.

Since over a decade the US-Pakistan relationship has depended greatly on the Afghanistan situation, a great deal of the session was a continuation of Saturday’s ‘Afghanistan 2014: consequences for Pakistan’ session. In stark contrast to the latter with seven panellists, was this one-man session on the long but tumultuous relationship between the two countries.

“If Afghanistan is no longer of interest, then where does that leave Pakistan?” asked Dr Husain. Olson responded that these matters were discussed in the recent US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue in Washington between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz. For the future of the relationship he said, “Will it endure? I think it will.”

For the Afghanistan National Security Forces, Olson insisted that they were capable of handling the Taliban threat, described it as “the most capable army that Afghanistan has ever had.” As for the future of the US within the Afghanistan region, he clarified that the NATO and the US forces, “contingent on the Afghanistan invitation” will not be withdrawing but rather lessening their presence within the region. “We will remain present as a residual force.” Upon the issue of Pakistan’s negative pereception of the US and vice versa, Olson agreed that that was an aspect of the relationship that did need improving. Dr Husain highlighted possibilities of increasing trade between the two countries. “In the spirit of complete candour, I must insist, this is an area we need to work on,” replied Olson.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2014.

Painting with a purpose: Prisoners use art to escape

KARACHI: Wild brush strokes in crimson and black hues covered the length of canvas, and in the far right hand corner there stood the silhouettes of a father and daughter holding hands and standing together.

The portrait was by Kazim Shah, who has been an inmate at Central Prison Karachi for the past six years. He was arrested for carrying out illegal intimidation and other notorious activities for a local political party. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

But Shah is just one of the many prisoners to have recently taken to expressing their pain and anguish by using art as a medium.  Alliance Française de Karachi on Friday hosted a ‘Karachi Inmates’ exhibition displaying over 50 works by inmates who are part of the Fine Art School’s inmates programme.

IG prisons Nusrat Hussain said, “Art is one of the mediums by which we can make a difference.” The money from the sale of the paintings goes straight back to the prisoners themselves which enables them to send money to their family or helps motivate them to keep working and save up for the day when they can leave. This was the seventh exhibition organised by the programme. The proceeds from the last exhibition were over Rs200,000.

While for prisoners like Shah the programme serves as a form of escape where they can fantasise about a better life, other prisoners chose their past as their muse. Samar Abbas who was sentenced for smuggling narcotics painted a hand grabbing onto a flag and rejecting drugs. The painting could perhaps be interpreted as his way of attempting to rewrite his past or maybe even expressing that if he was given a second chance he would choose life and freedom over drugs.

While some of the art was more on the nose, other artists chose an entirely different inspiration altogether. Abdul Aziz, who is one of the most senior citizens of the programme and has been training since it first kicked off displayed a portrait of a Baloch man.

Ashfaq, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in a bomb blast that killed a prominent member of a minority group, displayed a series of calligraphic paintings.

Consul General of France Francois Dall’Orso who was also present on the occasion said, “Art can provide one with peace of mind and respite.” The inmates programme began in 2008 at Karachi’s central jail and has since helped improve the lives of several prisoners by enabling them to channel their energy into something productive. After witnessing the success of the programme there, it has now kicked off in other prisons of Karachi and is currently training female prisoners as well.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2014.

The annual tea party: Whisked away

KARACHI: Glossy fondant flowers adorned over melt-in-your-mouth tartlets, sumptuous cream cheese icing ladled over soft carrot cake, and a lemon pound cake that would make you forget your own name. These were just a few of the offerings at the first annual tea party hosted by Tools To Bake (TTB), a home-based business run by the three Athar sisters, Zahra, Ruba and Daniya.

The event, held on Wednesday, took place at a private residence and the treats were prepared by some of their students. “We organised the tea party to introduce our students to clients and other business owners, to help them kick off their own business,” said Zahra Athar. “Around 90% of the students who take our classes end up staring their own businesses.”

TTB conducts baking courses that include fondant decorating and other professional baking courses and also supplies Wilton baking tools across Pakistan.

“I bake because I find it therapeutic and have been doing this all of my life. I mostly bake on request” said Iqbal.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2014.

Fine-tuning and fine arts: Realism and escape at central jail

The sound of music wafted through the grounds, as I walked underneath the shade of Neem trees. There, on the walls, were soothing murals of the night sky and of pelicans bathing themselves in the river. I was outside the Central Jail School of Fine Arts and Music.

The school is located in the back of the Central Jail, Karachi. As you pass through the security checks, past the heavy gate chained by a padlock and manned by a constable, past the superintendent’s office, in the outdoor grounds led by the long corridor.

I walked inside to find a small group of prisoners playing instruments like the keyboard and harmonium. As I walked into the adjoining room, I found more prisoners scattered around the room. There were students sitting on stools painting canvases placed on easels and others sat cross-legged on the floor, sketching.

There were paintings and sculptures hanging on the walls, placed on the floor next to the walls, and set atop shelves and tables all around the room.

Samar Abbas, a senior student of the fine arts programme, stood at the front of the class. In a green polo shirt and khaki pants, as he assisted the others, Abbas resembled a teacher more than a prisoner. He showed me a detailed charcoal sketch of a bird sitting on top of a lantern that he had just finished. Having been part of the programme right from the start — when it first began six years ago — he had sold over a hundred paintings.

I turned to another prisoner who stood chatting with other classmates. Abdul Aziz Bugti had been in the programme since his sentencing four years ago. Convicted for his involvement in a bomb blast and sentenced to four life terms which roughly adds up to 210 years, Bugti was in Central Jail to stay. He wanted to spend the rest of his years widening the gap between his previous life and his current one. Bugti has made friends in the art class.

Clad in an expensive-looking kurta and shalwar, his hair a neat mop of salt and pepper curls, there was a man lounging in the seat behind the teacher’s desk. I asked him, “You’re not making anything?” He responded in an accent that sounded faintly American. “I’m merely a patron of the arts. I come here simply to show support.”

The school was launched through the efforts of the then superintendent Nusrat Hussain Mangan, who had hoped that his own love for the arts would also inspire his prisoners to achieve a positive outlook on life. Fine Arts School teacher Sikander Jogi was approached by Mangan and together, they came up with the school that now runs classes six days a week from 9am to 1pm.

Senior superintendent of prisons, Kazi Nazir Ahmed said, “Yeh chotta sa poda tha jo ab darakht ban gaya hai [It was a small plant that has now grown into a tree].” Jogi and Ahmed are now trying to get the programme affiliated though the Sindh Technical Board.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2014.

Constructive deconstruction: Artists display works inspired by their life in the city

Several young artists displayed their works at the Full Circle Gallery’s exhibit ‘Deconstruct’ on Saturday. A graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Marium Kamal’s works included a gargantuan canvas in shades of ochre with messages, such as ‘Karachi, my beauty you are just misunderstood’ and ‘Deep down inside it’s just another city’. Another curious piece by Kamal titled ‘It’s just an explosion’ comprised a large plain canvas — stained with the help of coffee — with huge patches of it burnt off. Behind those burnt patches, were other similar messages.

Another artist, Syed Kashif Ali Mohsin created his own graphic novel and for the exhibition he took some of the extracts from the novel to create four different water colours. The first one is a plain water colour painting of a man. The next three are water colours of the same man except these paintings have messages of bomb explosions and killings written in charcoal and pastel.

The paintings are created as a series that aim to tell the story of his novel; each painting develops the tale of the man in the first painting. “These are the kind of messages of sectarian violence and other killings that you receive from your friends,” he said. “The paintings describe the day of anyone who lives in this city.”

The last painting of the story is a particularly grotesque yet intriguing image of just the protagonist’s head on the body of an insect. According to Mohsin, the painting is a hallucination that he has in the story where he sees himself as nothing more than an insect.

Sikander Butt displayed a series of digitally painted photographic manipulations. His picture, ‘Islam mein darri hai, darri mein Islam nahi’ displays men prostrating on the floor in a mosque. “The message behind this picture is freedom of thought. We are fed what to think and how to act by our elders,” said Butt. “We need to be reminded that we do not necessarily always know what is true but in fact we are taught what to believe or consider right and true.”

Another image by him at first glance appears to be just another ordinary image of the national flag, however, upon a closer examination one can see bar codes printed along the star and the moon as well as the white section of the flag. “Pakistan has been sold,” states Butt simply.

On the lighter side were the pieces by Mahmil Masood, who is also a graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. For her collection, Masood used materials such as newspapers and plastic, and stitched it together. Her works include abstract art pieces that portray themes such as materialism in today’s world.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2014.

Down to a science: Because learning is doing

KARACHI: You can make water explode if you put Vitamin C in it. That’s what eight-year-old Hamza Humayun taught me at the Scientist Factory (SF).

Scientist Factory is a Norwegian social enterprise created with the philosophy that the best way to learn science is by doing. SF’s Pakistan Project began last year when they conducted a science workshop for the students of the educational organisation, The Garage School. Expanding on their initiative from last year, this year SF is conducting three different workshops. One of them is a two-week workshop at the Haque Academy for children aged between eight and 12.

Humayun, who lives in Lahore and is visiting his grandparents in Karachi for the summer, is attending the course during his holidays. Humayun’s mother came across the summer course while searching online for an activity to keep her son occupied during the hot months.

According to his grandmother Shahnaz Jillani, Humayun is obsessed with TV shows that depict mad scientists carrying out wild and outrageous scientific experiments. When asked whether he’d like to pursue a career in science when he grows up, Humayun responded, “I’ll think about it.”

Project manager for the Norwegian venture and incharge of their Pakistani project, Lalah Rukh conducts the workshops. During one of the sessions at the Haque Academy, she laid out six glasses with numerous household liquids at the bottom of each glass. She then brandished a sixth glass containing a ‘mystery’ purple liquid. She explained to the eager students that the liquid would change the colour of each of the numerous liquids present in the glasses. As she poured the liquid, some of the liquids changed to a bluish-green whereas the others turned to a pinkish hue. She then proceeded to explain to the awed students that the purplish liquid was red cabbage extract dissolved in water and it was a helpful indicator in judging whether a chemical was acidic, basic or neutral.

The children, while being carefully supervised, proceeded to experiment themselves with the red cabbage extract. “We’re doing this for proof of concept,” she said. “We feel children learn best when they experiment themselves.”

Science camps are conducted across the world for students, who have shown extraordinary promise in the field. The SF, however, operates with a different philosophy. “We don’t want to discriminate that way. Our courses are for everyone,” added Rukh.

Along with the course at Haque Academy, SF is also conducting another workshop at The 2nd Floor in the upcoming weeks. Moreover, SF has also arranged a separate one-week course for the children of Aman Foundation’s low income staff and the students of Kiran School, Lyari for underprivileged children.

This articles was first published in The Express Tribune on June 16, 2014.