ISLAMABAD — Fair trials are almost nonexistent in Pakistan. In a country overrun with corruption and terrorism, it’s hard to tell if the militants or the government pose a more dangerous threat to civilians. The nation’s jails are overrun with prisoners, some of whom are civilians who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Others are simply too poor to afford a good lawyer, and have been stuck in prison for years waiting convictions and executions.
Sarah Belal, director of Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), saw the depth of the plights of prisoners in Pakistan. Having completed her law degree at Oxford University, Belal has led the nonprofit since 2009. This organization seeks to represent the poorest prisoners and those facing harsh punishments from Pakistani courts. Their clients consist of prisoners on death row, police torture victims, the mentally ill and terrorist victims.
JPP workers have their work cut out for them, though. The organization predicts that more than 465 prisoners have died due to death penalties and executions over the past two years. Pakistan had initially struck the death penalty from its justice system in a moratorium law, but lifted this ban after a horrific terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.
While the initial motive of this severe punishment may have been to curb violence in Pakistan, JPP believes that the death penalty is not effective in restoring peace. The region of Punjab, which has accounted for more than 83 percent of the nation’s executions, has seen a drop of only 9.7 percent for murder rates. There’s also to substantial overcrowding in all of Pakistan’s major prisons. JPP says the death penalty is serving as a means of controlling prison population instead of as a tool for justice, as many of these convicts are incriminated by sufficient evidence to deserve death.
While the number of executions is rising, most prisoners in Pakistan wait for years before they can get a trial in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. Many prisoners often develop mental and psychological issues due to the uncertainty of their fate and constant isolation. These kinds of illnesses have little awareness and treatment in Pakistan, and even then Pakistani authorities show no concern for the health of their prisoners. JPP lawyers and psychologists stress that should these prisoners go free, their ability to rejoin society will be significantly hampered by their time spent behind bars.
JPP offers pro-bono legal aid, but also advocates against holes in Pakistan’s justice system and works to provide at-risk prisoners with fair trials. JPP hopes to model an exemplary legal practice to Pakistan, and while it has many volunteer lawyers from around the world, it is also training Pakistanis to become fair and equitable lawyers. The organization has released 39 wrongfully-detained prisoners in Pakistan over the past three years, but not every case is successful. Belal remains positive though, believing JPP can provide a promising future for criminal justice in Pakistan.
– Sydney Cooney