In January 2018, a young medical student Asma Rani was robbed of her life in cold blood because her family had refused a marriage proposal. Following which a public outcry was witnessed, leading the Supreme Court to take notice and arresting the killer, Mujahidullah Afridi. A trail ensued for three years and the main accused was sentenced to death by the court. Justice prevailed? But only it did not. In an unfortunate turn of event, Asma’s father has pardoned her killer in exchange for Rs40 million. Both the parties reached a compromise in a formal jirga as per the local tradition of ‘nanawati.’ This is a tenet of Pashtunwali among the Pashtun people in which a beleaguered person enters the home of a stranger and makes a request that the host cannot deny. In this context, the request was an out-of-court settlement demanding a pardon. The fact that such formal jirgas sans judicial oversight still exist in Pakistan are a cause of concern. Simply put, it means that irrespective of what the country’s apex court decides, a jirga setting can overrule the verdict without any repercussions. What is worse is that a rule passed in 2017 – Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) Bill – gave legal cover to jirgas mainly present in the country’s tribal areas.
In 2020 again, a revised bill of the same name was approved by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cabinet. But developing a parallel legal structure only undermines confidence in the state in the long-term. And as the elders of the Marwat Quami Movement that boycotted the event of pardon in Asma’s case said, this loophole in our justice system would only encourage others like Mujahid. It is also pertinent to note that until recently K-P had no formal laws in place to protect witnesses connected to criminal cases. It was only on Sept 4 this year when the provincial assembly passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Witness Protection Bill, 2021. The father of the deceased on the occasion of pardoning the killer had said that the decision to forgive was taken because he feared for his family as there were threats to them after Mujahid’s conviction. After all, Asma’s killer hails from the influential Afridi tribe of Kohat and a deal to set him free under duress cannot be ruled out. It is thus important for the provincial government to look into this new development in Asma’s murder case. The writ of the law shouldn’t be challenged by centuries old jirga system.