KARACHI, Jan 5: Civil society and non-governmental organisations have demanded that the government formulate laws prescribing a time limit of six months during which courts must decide rape cases, since protracted hearings not only intensify the victims’ suffering but also work in favour of the accused.
Referring to the 2002 amendments to the law regarding khula under which courts are now required to settle divorce cases within six months, the lobbyists pointed out that under the current laws pertaining to rape, it can take years for cases to be decided and the delay works in favour of the men accused, who end up being set free.
The rights’ groups pointed out that rape results in a number of social consequences for the victim and a large number of such crimes are not reported at all. Where a formal complaint is made, the victims have to suffer insensitive investigations and open-court trials during which they are asked humiliating questions since the majority of the officials – lawyers as well as the police – do not understand the delicacy of the matter and display hostile rather than sympathetic attitudes towards the victims.
The activists said that currently, rape cases are tried in the normal courts in a routine manner so that it often took years for a decision to be handed down. It was observed that due to the passage of time, victims lost the support that was initially offered to them and they became more vulnerable to intimidation by the culprits. As a result, a number of victims did not follow their cases in the courts. The lack of interest shown by the prosecution led to the eventual dismissal of the cases, which worked to the benefit of the rapists.
They referred to section 10, sub-section 4 of the West Pakistan Family Act 1964, which was revisited by the Family Courts (Amendment) Ordinance 2002 (Ord no. LV of 2002) and the law now stipulates that cases of khula [divorce demanded by the wife] be settled within six months. This had helped a lot of women, they said while suggesting that similar time frames be formulated in terms of rape cases.
Sarah Zaman, who heads the non-governmental organisation War Against Rape, explained that while a large number of rapes are not reported for fear of social consequences, a few victims receive support from friends, family and NGOs and report the matter to the police. “However, the investigation process is not women-friendly and survivors are exposed to all sorts of insensitive questions during the trials,” she said. “Such practices prevent victims from reporting the crime in the first place.”
Ms Zaman pointed out that due to the sluggish speed of the legal system, not only do rape victims gradually lose the support they initially gathered, the perpetrator – who is usually in a position of greater social dominance and influence – gains time to intimidate the victim’s family into an out of court settlement. “When this happens, jirgas or other informal tribunals are constituted to settle the issue and they usually decide to the advantage of the comparatively influential perpetrators,” said Ms Zaman. “Meanwhile the victim, who was initially anxious to see justice, starts feeling increasingly insecure as she loses support. Once an out of court settlement has taken place, the victim and her family stop pursuing the case and the court eventually has to dispose of it for lack of interest shown by the prosecution.”
According to Ms Zaman, the social pressure is so high that the victim and prosecution witnesses are sometimes forced to shift homes and become untraceable. “In this case, the case cannot move forward since they don’t come to the courts and the benefit goes to the perpetrator of the crime,” she pointed out.
Miscarriages of justice
These views were endorsed by WAR lawyer Aasiya Muneer, who told Dawn that once an out of court settlement is reached, either the victim or the witnesses retract their earlier identification and tell the court that the accused person is not the real perpetrator of the crime, leaving the court with no option but to release the rapist for the lack of evidence.
In support of this, Ms Muneer said that her organisation had so far handled over 70 cases but only ten of these had been decided. Of these, the accused in two cases were handed sentences but the other eight were set free, either because the victims could not be traced or because the victims/ witnesses refused to recognise the accused persons in court.
The chief of Aurat Foundation, Anis Haroon, also said that rape victims became vulnerable to pressure tactics once they started losing material and emotional support due to the passage of time. Also referring to the Family Courts (Amendment) Ordinance 2002, she suggested that laws be formulated stipulating that rape cases be decided within six months. “If this were accomplished, survivors would be strengthened by support and assistance from a variety of sources, witnesses would not back out and the culprits would have less time to exert social or other kinds of pressure,” she pointed out. “As a result, comparatively more perpetrators would be punished.”
Ms Haroon suggested that in terms of rape cases, special units manned by sensitised officials be established in police stations. Additionally, she said, an increased number of hospitals and clinics in the vicinity of police stations should be authorised to carry out medico-legal examinations. “Currently, a large number of rape cases are not registered since the victims expect the law enforcers to be hostile, or because they do not know where to go for the required examinations, or because these facilities are available at a great distance,” she pointed out.