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Pakistan's Panchayat Justice: Good Faith Arbitration Or Brutal Tribal Law?

The streets of Lahore, Pakistan (*_*)
The streets of Lahore, Pakistan (*_*)
Nadia Bl�try

MULTAN - Malik Sarfaz, a simple farmer, has been administering justice in his village of Chah Peppal Wala for more than 30 years.

Tucked into a particularly poor and rural corner of southern Punjab in Pakistan, this village is situated more than 10 hours away by car from the capital Islamabad. The man with the wrinkled face is the leader of the panchayat, a form of local self-government. Looking pious in his threadbare traditional shalwar kameez trousers, Sarfaz explains that this system of justice has reigned for as long as he can remember.

"Our traditional justice system is excellent; it rests on the principle of reconciliation," he says. "We're working towards putting an end to violence, whether it is between two people, two families or two clans, which would otherwise worsen without intervention."

Sarfaz explains that panchayat is a "quick and free" form of justice that doesn't require the costs of lawyers and trips into the city.

A common practice across the country, this justice system is, however, illegal and frequently denounced by human rights organizations. "We should be wary of panchayats," says Shaista Bukhari, who manages the Women's Rights Association. "They're not always bad, as they settle conflict in village communities. The problem with the councils is when it comes to the question of honor, which often means that of women. They purport to be democratic, yet women are not authorized to participate and are the first to be subjected to their decisions."

Mukhtar Mai, who lives in Mirwalla, a small town in southern Punjab, knows this form of justice only too well. She is now a broken woman, a victim whose name has been splashed across the media. "When I was sentenced by a panchayat, the leader of the council was particularly close to one of the province's ministers. I belonged to a particularly powerless caste in the village and I was sacrificed," the young woman tells us, her voice expressionless and lifeless.

In 2002, a village council sentenced her to be raped. The cause: a complaint against her brother. The 11 year-old boy was accused of having a relationship with a girl ten years his senior, belonging to the powerful Mastoi caste. To protect the family's honor, Mukhtar Mai was offered to the powerful clan. "I remember, I was stood before the panchayat with my Koran, I wanted to testify in support of my little brother, but the leader of the assembly and the men that surrounded him said: "You see this girl? Take her and do what you want with her." I dropped my Koran. Two men then took me into a house; two other people were there. They raped me and threw me, naked, into the street," she recounts, as her eyes well up with tears.

Mai took her case before the courts, which garnered some international media. However, only one of her aggressors has been found guilty and sentenced. "Clan justice is not only unfavorable to women, but to poor people and to all those who don't have power in the country," she says. "I have never been given justice, not from the panchayats, nor from the State."

Female "compensation"

Malik Sarfraz, who does not know how to read or write, seems, however, to exercise his power all in good faith. On the issue of women, he concedes that sometimes decisions are not in their favor. "Generally, when there are conflicts between two parties, we try to settle them by compensation. We ask the guilty party to pay the affected family by giving them a plot of land," he says. "It is only with those who do not own property or those who don't want to give it up that we are forced to sacrifice a girl, a sister or daughter, in compensation. It helps avoid violence."

All the panchayats of Pakistan are not, however, run by farmers. A number of them are run by local elites, who are often feudal lords, property owners, the educated and the powerful, who benefit from relationships with the higher levels of the State and sometimes have seats in parliament.

"The lack of trust in legal justice, which sometimes takes years to examine cases and involves the complicity of powers-that-be is helping to keep the panchayats around," admits Rehman Rashid, a representative for the Pakistani Human Rights Commission in Multan. "The panchayats are dangerous because they are not accountable to anyone. Therefore, they have an unlimited power and can order the practice of torture and physical abuse."

But the human rights activist insists that a deeper problem is that the feudal lords are participating in this system of clan justice, which doesn't rest on any written code. "By giving their support to the panchayats, or participating in them, the members of parliament are showing that they don't believe in State justice; they're denying legal justice," says Rashid.

In a small police station in Multan, the biggest town of southern Punjab, two women inspectors share a rundown office. They are responsible for community affairs. "In theory, we're here to help villagers to press charges and demand justice, but our task is difficult," says inspector Namreen Munir, who wears her uniform with pride. "The feudal lords do all they can to prevent the farmers from speaking with us. They would rather administer justice themselves, since it allows them to maintain power over the villagers, who are at the same time their workforce and their electorate."

For such state officials, receiving too much attention can mean that the feudal lords who know the superior officers will complain. "At best, we will be transferred, at worst we'll be sacked, adds Munir. "In their eyes, we are nothing and therefore it is impossible to even try to apply justice in Pakistan."

Read the original article in French.

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