Noor Muqaddam Murder Case: The Legal Imbroglio
It is quite tough to take one’s mind off the recent blood-soaked murder of Noor Mukaddam in an upscale neighbourhood of Islamabad mainly because of its gruesomeness, but more shocking and distressing is the fact that it happened in our own backyard, so to speak. The goriness and extremely disturbing details of the case apart, it will be unfair not to regard it as your own: the familiarity with the location, the way these big kothis are run and managed through guards and bearers coupled with the eeriness of the whole turn of events is quite mind-numbing, to say the least.
The dreamy and yet intelligent eyes with a half smile of the cold-bloodedly murdered young lady will haunt this country and will be etched in our collective memory for quite some time to come. The sheer uniqueness and the powerful emotions of remorse that it can potentially evoke coupled with this compelling thought of a young woman’s life cut short so brutally and tragically is enough to make one teary eyed even years after the occurrence. Even Noor Muqaddam’s first name should be enough to stop us in our tracks and look around ourselves and think how many young ladies of the same name we know of. I can count at least five.
Although the composed and dignified tone and demeanour of Noor’s father while facing the media is praiseworthy, we — as a society — must not lose sight of the ultimate goal of justice in this case through our legal system.
Although most of us would have preferred to think that something as gruesome as this would never happen in the most affluent and literate of areas in our capital where college education must be one of the highest per square kilometer, Noor’s murder has come as a rude shock. The harrowing details, the media coverage with the dramatic unfolding of scintillating facts surrounding the crime are something most of us associate with a well made crime thriller which might haunt even an ordinary human being for a few sleepless nights. It is another matter if the trauma is a direct consequence of a real life occurrence happening to someone who perfectly fits the description of a girl next door. Let us leave the motive, piecing together of material evidence and presenting a strong case before the court to the police and the prosecution, but it has to be said that we are living through times where we are regularly put through an inexplicable and unnecessary process of ‘re-enlightenment’ by our own Prime Minister—dutifully applauded by his loyal cheerleaders—especially when it comes to violent crimes against women and girls.
Culpability in the crime and the eventual fate of the main accused Zahir Jaffer will be finally decided by the court conducting the murder trial but it is worth examining—without prejudicing the investigation and the imminent court case, of course—how murder cases are usually built by the police through investigation starting from the First Information Report (FIR) and subsequently by fitting material pieces of evidence collected during the course of investigation till before the start of the trial into a plausible version, enough to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
Briefly put, as far as the province of Punjab is concerned, it has been a practice dating back to the late nineteenth century to falsely implicate relatives of the main accused in order to ‘avenge’ the murder which has become known as the quintessentially Punjabi way of doing things. It has to be said that such incrimination was just meant to put the killer’s immediate family through the rigours of police custody and brutal investigations and even prison potentially resulting in financial ruin of families in some cases. Our criminal justice system has taken this falsehood and exaggeration of facts into its stride and has traditionally dealt with such a phenomenon by relying on the principle of ‘separating chaff from the grain’ and have disregarded the palpably false testimony of witnesses (who mostly happen to be close relatives of the deceased) given against the killer’s kin. The above practice, peculiar to the Punjab province, has given birth to a unique jurisprudence little known outside the Punjabi culture and courts.
However, in a recent judgment (PLD 2019 SC 527) the Supreme Court has put a stop to the above practice by holding to the effect that, notwithstanding the social conditions prevalent in the country, the common law principle of ‘Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’ (once false, false in everything) is applicable to false testimonies given under oath by witnesses in criminal trials. The effects and possible social reverberations of the above judgment have been far reaching and profound so far to put it mildly. Consequently, in instances where the main witness has exaggerated the role of the murderer’s relatives the courts have started to disbelieve the part which comprises of accurate and truthful account of the occurrence opening the door for possible acquittals for murderers.
As a fair comment, the Supreme Court—although guided by good intentions and sound legal principles in terms of reforming our policing and criminal justice system—may be criticised for unleashing the opposite of a social revolution by disbelieving the testimony of a false witness in its totality ignoring an otherwise open and shut case against the main perpetrator of a murder. Resultantly, the statistics relating to death sentences being set aside and converted into acquittals at the appeal stage before the High Court are staggering.
The above judgment, although well meaning in substance and sound in principle, has failed to address the fact that because of the one and a half century old culture prevalent in the province means that our police and the citizen do not know any other way of registering an FIR and that such a drastically radical and epoch making judgment, delivered for consumption in an ideal world, has arrived with literally zero reforms on the part of the executive required for the smooth administration of criminal justice.
That, owing to a toxic and negative culture of false testimonies, bad policing techniques and equally flawed training resulting in miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court was compelled to quote the American judge’s instruction to the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial that “a witness who is willfully false in one material part of his or her testimony is to be distrusted in others”. Having said that and, while agreeing with the substance of the Supreme Court judgment in principle, it has to be said that in our dysfunctional criminal justice system in particular and the society in general the overall impact of the said judgment has been devastating in terms of removal of a strong deterrent as a consequence. It would not be far off the mark to opine that the author judge, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, while being rightly driven by his urge to leave his lasting judicial legacy in terms of reforming the criminal justice system and bring it at par with those of the first world, has merely managed to throw the baby with the bathwater.
The Noor Muqaddam murder case may look quite straightforward from the outside but, since our policing and investigation techniques normally leave a lot to be desired, there is a danger that our flawed system, which is prone to amelioration and exaggeration of testimonies of witnesses, succumbs to such a temptation. One can only hope that the Islamabad Police and the relevant prosecution department, on the basis of the material and yet compelling evidence, builds a water tight case which stands the test of judicial process and scrutiny so that justice may be served in this case.
Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir