Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Sorry case reveals defects of Pakistani legal system

HELPLESS A 35-year-old man has spent 18 years in prison and now faces execution under a justice system that critics have described as `warped'

AP , ISLAMABAD

After spending half his life in a grim Pakistani jail, Tahir Mirza Hussain is due to hang on his 36th birthday for killing a taxi driver -- although a court acquitted him 10 years ago.

The British-Pakistani man, who claims he's innocent, was cleared by a secular court, but then retried and found guilty in an Islamic one and now faces execution on June 1 -- unless President Pervez Musharraf intervenes.

His muddled case, spanning two decades, is emblematic of Pakistan's corrupt and contradictory legal system that a leading rights activist described as "warped" and in desperate need of reform.

Amnesty International has called for a retrial, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett have urged Musharraf to reconsider Hussain's sentence. He's already served 18 years in a cramped, dark cell, mostly at the notorious Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi near the capital.

"What does he have to do to get justice?" said elder brother Amjad Hussain, who is visiting from Leeds, northern England, to lobby for Hussain's life.

"How could you retry a man who was acquitted?" he asked.

Mirza Hussain's family migrated to England from Pakistan when he was a boy. In December 1988, after completing training in Britain's reserve army, the 18-year-old came back to visit relatives living near Chakwal, about 90km south of Islamabad. On his way there, he claims the driver of the taxi he'd hired stopped the car and produced a gun and physically and sexually assaulted him. In the struggle that followed the gun went off and the driver, Jamshad Khan, was fatally wounded.

Hussain voluntarily reported the incident to police, but was arrested, and in September 1989 was sentenced to death.

A high court, however, revoked the death penalty in November 1992 due to serious discrepancies in the prosecution case and ordered a retrial. In April 1994 his sentence was reduced to life in prison and then in May 1996 the high court acquitted Hussain of all charges.

But a week later, while he was waiting for release, the case was referred to the Islamic, or Shariah court, on the basis that the crime he was charged with -- armed robbery -- came under its jurisdiction.

In August 1998, in a split 2-1 verdict, the Shariah court's three judges sentenced him to death again, although the legal provision he was tried under required a confession or witness to the crime. The prosecution had neither.

The dissenting judge, Abdul Waheed Siddiqui, gave a scathing assessment of the prosecution case in a detailed 59-page opinion.

He described Hussain as "an innocent, raw youth not knowing the mischief and filth in which the police of this country is engrossed." He said police investigators had introduced false witnesses and "fabricated evidence in a shameless manner" to prove the defendant as "a desperate and habitual" bandit although he had no criminal record.

Amnesty and other rights groups have condemned the trial as unfair, but Pakistan's government maintains Hussain has been treated with due process. Last year, Musharraf rejected his mercy petition.

Legal experts say Pakistan's police and judiciary are rarely noted for their integrity, and having both secular and Islamic laws at work only allows for more abuse.

"It's a basic and fundamental flaw with our criminal justice system," said Hina Jilani, vice-chair of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "There are parallel and overlapping jurisdictions. There should be just one set of laws dealing with offenses in Pakistan,'' he said.

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