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Dawn Editorial 7 May 2020

Unequal justice

A MORE bleak assessment of the criminal justice system can scarcely be imagined. On Monday, the Islamabad High Court described the criminal justice system in its jurisdiction as “alarming and abysmal… [It] is definitely not serving its purpose; rather it… appears to have become a source of grave injustice”. These remarks were included in a strongly worded judgement by Chief Justice Athar Minallah at the end of proceedings that saw the accused in seven different murder cases acquitted. Most of the individuals had already spent around 10 years each behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Their ordeal is a stark illustration of how the system fails to protect the fundamental rights to life, liberty and due process. Justice Minallah listed several of its more problematic aspects, among them the fatally flawed police investigations that either result in unsafe convictions or allow perpetrators of even serious crimes to go scot-free. Matters in the rest of the country are no different, and the chief justice correctly observed that this shambolic state of affairs has been a very long time in the making. It is “a reflection of the apathy, neglect and mis-governance of the past seven decades and no organ of the state can absolve itself from being responsible.”
Former Supreme Court chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa had also at the beginning of his tenure last year declared his intention to address the undue delays in judicial determination of cases and tackle the scourge of fake witnesses and false testimonies. Setting up model courts across the country to streamline and expedite trial proceedings was part of Mr Khosa’s reform efforts. In 2019, these courts decided more than 30,000 cases. On Tuesday, the day after its scathing verdict, the IHC proposed a policy whereby criminal appeals would be decided within three months, a process that often takes years to conclude. No wonder the country’s overcrowded jails are heaving with under-trial prisoners. Sometimes, inmates die of natural causes while waiting for the outcome of their appeal. In a particularly macabre incident not long ago, two brothers did not live to see their convictions for murder overturned because they had been executed by the state before their appeals were decided.
However, judges can only rule on the evidence presented before them, and only when there are simultaneous reforms in the functioning of the police can there be any improvement in the dispensation of justice. As matters stand, in the absence of resources and training — and the prevalence of a corrupt ‘thana culture’ — what often passes for ‘investigation’ is planted evidence, confessions under torture, etc. In other words, the victim can easily be cast as the perpetrator, and the innocent be thrown behind bars simply on the whims of the powerful. And yet, there seems to be no political will to right this dystopian nightmare.


New locust invasion

A SECOND wave of desert locust swarms is waiting to ravage a swath of farmlands across the country this summer. In a new report, the Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned of “a potentially serious food security crisis” and significant livelihood losses unless urgent action is taken to contain the pests breeding in parts of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab, covering almost 38pc of the country’s total area. The infestation could deepen the economic pain already being felt by people because of the Covid-19 outbreak, which has shuttered the economy, forced massive layoffs and pushed millions into poverty. The FAO says the losses to agriculture in case of a fresh locust invasion could reach anywhere between Rs205bn and Rs353bn for Rabi crops and Rs464bn for Kharif crops as the swarms coming from Iran, Oman and East Africa will join the local infestation. The FAO’s call for controlling the influx amid the impact of Covid-19 on health, livelihoods and food security and nutrition of vulnerable communities needs to be heeded without delay.
Pakistan is experiencing its worst locust attack in 30 years. Despite significant crop devastation in parts of Sindh, KP, Balochistan and Punjab, the authorities have done little to contain the resurgence of the plague. Farmers mostly find themselves on their own in tackling the infestation. Although the government declared a national emergency this February, inaction has led the pests to breed fast in the coastal areas of Balochistan, as well as in the deserts of Sindh and Punjab. Helped by a wet winter and the absence of effective control operations such as aerial anti-pesticide spraying in the breeding regions, the second generation of hoppers has formed large swarms. Indeed, the locust invasion has caught the authorities unprepared and without proper equipment to fight the threat. But the sad part is that the government has failed to build the capacity to deal with the extraordinary challenge over the last one year. Even the repeated alarm sounded by Sindh is ignored by the federal government at the peril of national food security and the livelihoods of smallholders. The Department of Plant Protection, for example, has been unable to deploy its two crop dusters because its pilots are not experienced in flying them. With a new wave threatening to destroy crops in the next few weeks, the government should ramp up pest control operations to eliminate the developing swarms before it is too late.


Doctor’s death

THE death of senior medical practitioner Dr Furqanul Haq in Karachi a few days ago has raised serious questions about the state of preparedness of the health system in Sindh, and its ability to handle patients in case of medical emergencies on a mass scale.
Of particular concern was the claim made by an office-bearer of the Pakistan Medical Association that no ventilator was available at any of the hospitals the medic was taken to.
Some of these questions appear to have been answered by a special inquiry committee tasked by the Sindh government to look into the incident.
The committee released its report on Wednesday.
However, the findings have raised some new concerns, which the authorities in the province would do well to address.
According to the inquiry committee, “misjudgement” on part of a medical officer at Karachi’s Civil Hospital was the cause of Dr Furqan’s death, as the doctor on duty showed “negligence” in not admitting the patient to the facility when beds were available in the ICU.
Sindh government officials had already said there was no shortage of ventilators in the province.
Perhaps the key lesson to be learnt from this tragedy is that the Sindh health authorities — and indeed health officials across the country — need to develop best practices and SOPs to deal with emergency cases in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Doctors and paramedics are on the front line in the battle against the coronavirus, and are under tremendous stress.
To avoid poor judgement on the part of overburdened doctors and nurses, there should be clear-cut SOPs for all first responders and medical professionals to follow in cases of emergency, which should be communicated to all public and private health facilities.
Moreover, despite official claims that there are enough ventilators in the province, now is a good time to take stock of the medical equipment available to private and public-sector hospitals, especially as coronavirus cases are on the rise.


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