ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s flamboyant chief justice has strengthened human rights but his inconsistent choice of cases has left the Supreme Court vulnerable to accusations of partisan intervention, a global group of 60 eminent judges and lawyers said on Thursday.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry - due to step down on December 12 - spearheaded a legal movement that forced out a dictator and established the independence of the judiciary for the first time in Pakistan’s history.
But without further reforms, Pakistan’s justice system will continue to destabilise the nuclear-armed nation, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists warned in a report.
“The Court has often garnered public acclaim for demanding government accountability,” the body said. But many felt “concerns that the Court has sometimes exercised its original jurisdiction in a political and partisan manner.”
Vigilante justice and deadly feuds are still common in Pakistan and few trust the courts to protect them. Police frequently execute suspects because they fear the courts will free them. Bungled cases are often blamed as the reason why dangerous militants go free.
Chaudhry helped restore some hope in the courts, the report said, by intervening in individual cases, such as one where police did not intervene in a lynching and another where paramilitary forces were filmed executing a civilian.
“Officials who were responsible for the killing and who would have otherwise escaped accountability were investigated and brought to justice,” the Commission said.
Such interventions have led to an explosion in the number of human rights cases submitted to the court. In 2011, it received more than 150,000 petitions, compared to just 450 in 2004.
Sometimes important cases were ignored and some seemingly frivolous ones taken up, the Commission said.
“In some cases, the Supreme Court has acted swiftly ... facilitating victims’ right to remedy and reparation. In other instances, however, the Court has not responded to urgent human rights issues,” it said.
Chaudhry protected the rights of transsexuals but ignored attacks on religious minorities, the report said.
He intervened in government decisions but was unable to punish a single member of the powerful security agencies for the disappearance, torture or killing of thousands of Pakistanis.
Although the court intervened in some murder cases, many were kicked down to the lower courts - notorious for corruption and inefficiency - or opened, then simply shelved. Even cases in the Supreme Court were often dealt with arbitrarily.
When five girls were allegedly killed for clapping to music in Kohistan, in Pakistan’s mountainous Khyber province bordering Afghanistan, the court accepted a sloppy investigation that ignored forensic evidence, despite repeated public appeals by one of the investigators.
“I hoped that things had changed and now the court would give justice,” said Afzal Kohistani, who petitioned for the Supreme Court to intervene in the Kohistan case. “Now I have no hope because we have been forgotten.”
Reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Clarence Fernandez