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Justice System in Ruins in Pakistan Quake Area

Courts struggle on with their work in makeshift premises, with little security or order and sometimes no electricity. Fear and chaos reign.

November 27, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Aamir Nazir knows it has never been easy to dispense justice in the hardscrabble Himalayan mountains of Kashmir. He regularly worked with an overcrowded docket and in dilapidated courtrooms.

But at least Nazir had a courtroom to call his own. After last month's magnitude 7.6 earthquake that killed more than 87,000 people, he spent weeks banging his gavel in a crowded bus station parking lot. He recently moved into makeshift quarters, but fears they could crumble in the intermittent aftershocks.

"I worry every day I walk into this room," he said of the tiny office near the demolished court lockup.

The Oct. 8 earthquake played havoc with all areas of life throughout Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. About four-fifths of public buildings collapsed in the isolated rural region, including an estimated 10,000 schools, according to government estimates.

But one sector that hasn't received much attention is the judicial system. Hundreds of courtrooms were destroyed and at least 1,500 attorneys killed, as well as 100 judges and countless defendants.

A prison was leveled in nearby Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, sending guards and inmates clamoring over crumbled concrete walls. Ten death row inmates died in the destruction and six escaped.

"Now they're gone, just like that," attorney Gulkhan Changezi said. "They're in the mountains, or having tea in Kabul. How can we even hope to bring them back?"

In Abbottabad, the quake razed a dozen court buildings, many century-old brick structures. Also damaged was the once-commanding high court building.

Nearly two months after the disaster, chaos still pervades Judge Nazir's world. And the courts face a mounting backlog.

Often there is no electricity, and clerks must keep doors open so people can see what they're doing. The judges sleep each night in nearby tents, forsaking their damaged housing for fear of another quake. With no holding cells, prisoners awaiting their court appearances are kept in a bus.

The temblor struck on a Saturday morning, when most judges were in their chambers writing decisions. The main cupola crashed to the ground sending the black-robed judges scurrying.

One inmate was killed when the court lockup collapsed. "For the first time in our life, we are afraid of the court," Changezi said. "Defendants have always been afraid of what might happen here, but not the judges and lawyers."

For weeks, judges shared the dirt parking lot. They recently moved into the bus station, the only building in the vicinity that was not declared inhabitable.

Judge Ashraf Ali said many witnesses fearful of entering quake-damaged buildings were also reluctant to enter the darkened courtrooms with defendants. "I haven't dismissed cases yet for lack of witnesses, but I'm afraid it will happen," he said.

The Abbottabad courts remained closed for weeks as clerks picked through the rubble, trying to salvage irreplaceable documents.

Nazir recalled the confusion when proceedings resumed outdoors, where onlookers loomed at his desk, making snide comments. Testimony sometimes was drowned out by the din of car horns and passing traffic. Defendants often had to shout to be heard over the crowd.

The judge repeatedly called for order. Several times, a sudden downpour sent them running for cover. At every opportunity, defense attorneys requested a mistrial because of the confusion. Nazir denied each motion.

"There was no decorum," Nazir recalled. "What kind of respect can one expect if he's sitting in a parking lot?"

Security was another problem. In the makeshift parking lot court, there was no way to search every onlooker, and the judges worried that defendants might try to carry in weapons.

Nazir, 33, heard dozens of cases a day under the searing sun. One afternoon, he presided over cases involving five people charged with murder, a would-be rapist and several defendants being tried on major drug charges.

"There were some very serious, dangerous people standing before my bench," Nazir said, adding that one drug defendant kept looking at the tops of surrounding buildings. The man told the judge that he feared his enemies might try to kill him in the outdoor court.

"I feared for his safety, and I feared for mine as well," he said. "In our society, the aggrieved sometimes cannot wait for the court's justice. They often come looking to take matters into their own hands. And there were no walls to stop them."

But Nazir believes there is no choice.

"Even though we are in the midst of a natural disaster, we have to conduct trials at any cost. If we closed the courts then there truly would be anarchy in Pakistan."

On a recent Saturday, dozens of attorneys and clients milled around the bus station parking lot reading documents, discussing cases. On an outdoor wooden bus bench, Gulab Khan sat with his hands shackled, an armed guard keeping watch.

The 60-year-old had been charged with burning down his neighbor's house. Dressed in a turban and a dirty brown robe, he insisted that he was innocent.

"This is a bus station, not a courtroom," he said, his eyes red with tears. "How can I get justice here?"

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