Objection, your honour!

'We must put our house in order'

Objection, your honour!
It was a small, moderately-lit room, where people were sitting on a mat spread on the floor. They all looked at one of them, as if waiting for instructions. The silence was broken by the entry of a family of ten – four men and six women – who had come to seek a resolution to a family dispute involving property. There were no policemen at the gate.

After the complainant and the accused had given their statements, the arbiter asked them questions. The parties were not allowed to cross-talk. There were no lawyers. The arbiter had a black beard and wore a cap. He was being assisted by a coordinator. Both the parties had brought two witnesses each. After listening to them, followed by some questions and cross-examination, the arbiter issued a verdict. The visitors expressed that they agreed with the decision, and left.

This was one of what some legal experts believe are parallel Sharia courts run by Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), not in some remote tribal area, but in the heart of Punjab. The group says it does not run a parallel legal system, but merely arbitration councils that resolve disputes in accordance with the Sharia, with the consent of the parties involved.
"They don't require lawyers or lengthy procedures"

According to news reports, authorities are now investigating if any laws are being broken. I had visited the arbiter at the Darul Qaza Sharia at the JuD headquarters late last year, and spoke to him about what he did.

“Our efficiency can be measured by the speed with which we carry out the arbitration, and the satisfaction of the parties who come to us for dispute resolution,” said Mufti Muhammad Idrees. He said the council had decided more than 5,500 cases by the end of 2015. They included cases of murder.

“I have resolved five cases of murder,” he told me. “The families of the victims were paid compensation (diyat) equivalent to the price of 100 camels, and then they forgave the suspects.” He said the disputing parties make a security deposit, which is confiscated if they withdraw after having agreed to accept their decision.

After a complainant approaches the council or court, they send summons to the accused. The two parties – who he says belong to various sects – make their case, and then accept the decision of the arbiter. “If they don’t, it means they do not believe in Sharia. If a party thinks the verdict is biased, it has the right of appeal before our emir.”

A statement by the JuD last week denied sternly that they sent summons to the accused. It said the council “merely provides arbitration services to consenting parties”. But a report in Dawn newspaper asserted that the reporter had a copy of such summons.

He said he had never heard a dispute involving rape, because it required four eyewitnesses. DNA reports are not acceptable evidence in such cases, he believes, because there is no precedent of that in the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

The Mufti said the council or court did not issue orders of Qisas. “It is the duty of the state to make those decisions. We work in accordance with Pakistani law,” he said.

There were similar councils in Islamabad, Karachi, Gujranwala, Multan, Bahawalpur and Quetta, he told me.

Political analyst Salman Abid, who is the regional head of Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO), says such Sharia courts were no different from panchayats, jirgas and other parallel courts. “They don’t require any lawyers, case laws or lengthy procedures to follow. The people who don’t have access to justice by the conventional judicial system take this recourse,” he said.

JuD denies it is a parallel justice system. In its statement, the group said it “holds complete trust in the judicial system of the country”.

Salman Abid says Pakistan may be the only country where military courts, civilian courts, Panchayats and Sharia courts all functioned at the same time. “We must put our house in order,” he says. “Otherwise these parallel judicial systems will divide our society into many factions.”

“No one has the right to force someone into arbitration,” Punjab’s law minister Rana Sanaullah said on TV on April 7. “It is illegal and unconstitutional.” He said the government would investigate the matter and punish anyone found guilty.