ISLAMABAD - Commending the role of Supreme Court on the missing persons issue, a UN expert has voiced concerns over the misuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan in addition to other pertinent challenges confronting the country’s judiciary and legal fraternity.

“I am especially concerned regarding cases brought under the so-called blasphemy law as it was reported to me that judges have been coerced to decide against the accused even without supporting evidence; as for the lawyers, in addition to their reluctances to take up such cases, they are targeted and forced not to represent their clients properly,” said Gabriela Knaul, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, on the conclusion of her fact-finding mission in Pakistan on Monday. Having started on May 19, the 11-day visit aimed at gathering “first-hand information and identify general trends in respect of the independence of judges and lawyers in the country.” The detailed report on the mission would be presented in June next year at the 23rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Talking to a select group of journalists to share her preliminary observations, the UN expert elaborated on a range of her concerns including threats to judges and lawyers, and related challenges they face in course of duties, existence of Federal Shariat Court, huge backlog of pending cases particularly in lower courts, working conditions of the judiciary especially the lower courts, scanty budget and resources for courts, absence of women judges at SC, misuse of blasphemy law and “lack of clear criteria guiding the use of suo moto” Making certain recommendations, the special rapporteur was also appreciative of certain trends emerging in Pakistan’s judicial system.

“I would like to commend Pakistan’s transition from a military-based dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy-Transitions, however, come with challenges and very often challenges are encountered along the way,” Knaul said.

She commended the use of “inherent powers of the Supreme Court in recent cases related to gross human rights violations-in the case of enforced disappearances referred to as ‘missing persons’ in Balochistan.” “I believe that by using this procedure in some cases, the SC is upholding human rights law and contributing to combating impunity.” At the same time, the Brazilian expert conveyed her concern. “However, I am concerned by the lack of clear criteria guiding the use of suo moto, which can undermine its own nature and may jeopardise other pending cases...”

The special rapporteur, who works as an independent expert and reports to the UN member states, felt concerned witnessing the absence of women judges in SC and only two women in the High Courts. “Many stages of the justice system, starting with filing a case with the police, to assessing lawyers and appearing and testifying before the courts, are gender-biased.”

The UN expert, a former Brazilian judge, was further struck by the reports of existing laws, “such as the so- called blasphemy law, being misused to target women and strip them off of their fundamental rights.” She urged that blasphemy law be “defined by Pakistan’s law.”

On the Shariat Court as part of superior judiciary, the special rapporteur believed, the existence of two superior courts in the Constitution is “problematic and leaves space for interpretations which might be contradicting.”

Knaul shared with regret that the percentage of budget allocated to the judiciary was less than one percent of the total federal budget and “far below that of the institutions of the state.”

She mentioned with appreciation the role of Lawyers Movement in “restoring the rule of law in Pakistan” but felt concerned that “a limited number of lawyers might still be surfing on the wave of respect which arose of the Lawyers Movement while misconducting themselves vis-à-vis their clients, judges and the police.” 

On huge backlog of pending cases especially in the lower courts, the expert said, the situation is somewhat similar in the High Courts, pointing to the “number of long-term vacancies found in High Courts,” as a linked factor.

The special rapporteur’s key recommendations included calling upon the federal and provincial governments to increase the financial resources of judiciary and bar associations, following objective criteria for the appointment of judges, judges appointment to fill in the vacant positions, ensuring security of judges and lawyers, and capacity building “for all the actors of judicial system.”

The UN expert met Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, other SC and HC judges, senior government functionaries, representatives of civil society and legal fraternity and judicial experts in connection with her fact-finding mission.