On October 1, almost nine months after the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, a brave judge, Parvez Ali Shah, of the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC), awarded a double death sentence to the self-confessed assassin.
For a befitting sentence such as this one, it would be completely out-of-place to praise a judge as being bold under normal circumstances, in a normal country — a country where the rule of law persists and where the influential and anarchists do not undermine the law by intimidating law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.
But not in Pakistan.
The tragedy of Pakistan lies in the decades of policy blunders, where religion was used and abused. Security institutions created an environment of fear, passion and bloody violence in the name of religion, thereby undermining the normal functioning of the judiciary and the administrative system. And now there exist great distortions in powerful sections of the popular narratives regarding the role of religion in state, politics and society.
Irrespective of what prevails within the private sphere, intolerance and impatience are the hallmarks that dictate the expression of religion in the public sphere. Hence, it is within this context that judge Shah deserves to be called bold and brave.
The assassin’s supporters had managed to intimidate the state to the extent that the state prosecutor often found it difficult to enter the court, which was within the jail, through the front entrance. The judge, too, must have received threats, but his verdict dispenses justice, not a fear-ridden compromise of the rule of law.
As the defence prepares to file, within a week, an appeal against the death sentence in the high court, a new round of aggression has emerged on the streets. Not unexpected, opposition to this verdict has begun to emerge. Groups, sporadically and in small numbers, have gathered in different towns to condemn the sentence.
While it is entirely within the court’s purview to deal with the assassin’s appeal, the state, politicians and civil society must take necessary steps to ensure that the rule of law is upheld at all the stages of the assassin’s appeal. The following steps are particularly important.
One, the state must provide fool-proof security to the ATC judge who gave the verdict. Not only is this his right, but any harm to him will deter other judges from giving out sentences on merit.
Two, the government must come out, as should other political parties, to contest the arguments being put forth by the assassin’s defence.
Three, the government and other political parties must publicly engage those who have a working relationship with the supporters of the assassin and ones that are now taking to the streets to contest the ATC ruling.