Fighting perjury in Pakistan

One of the major companions and helpers of corruption – an illness eating away the substance of the Pakistani state, its institutions, and its people – is perjury. The meaning of perjury is to lie in court under oath. The giving of false evidence is already a criminal offense in Pakistan punishable by law. According to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), a person giving or fabricating false evidence is liable to be punished with imprisonment for life or with rigorous imprisonment, extending ten years, and also liable to being fined. In capital cases, punishment for false testimony can extend to life imprisonment. Hence there is an impression that the problem has been identified by the judicial system and relief has been meted out.

That is patently a false impression! The laws punishing perjury are hardly ever applied to punish liars in the Pakistani courts and therefore, in practice, they do not act as a deterrent. In August 2018, the Pakistani media reported that the SHC’s Registrar in a reply submitted in a case regarding judicial reforms stated “the Sindh High Court (SHC) and its subordinate courts have not prosecuted even a single individual over the past three years for perjury under Sections 193-196 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).” With the laws meant to contain perjury not being implemented by the courts and judges, this encourages people to give false evidence, in some cases for money or to manipulate documents that would serve as evidence against them.

This has been in practice for many years. The public realises that there is a good chance to get away with lies in court, and even if the lies are detected there is no punishment to be feared. The villagers that lied against Aasia Bibi in court are responsible for her staying in jail for many years. Her children had to grow up without their mother. Since they were asking that Aasia Bibi be put to death, should they face the same maximum penalty on being convicted for perjury?

Lying in court is an especially dangerous criminal offence because it undermines the very purpose of the court, of the laws of the country and the judicial system at large. Today, the honest citizens of this country feel discouraged from going to court because they are not sure that justice will prevail.

The laws punishing perjury are hardly ever applied to punish liars in the Pakistani courts and therefore, in practice, they do not act as a deterrent

The style of the new Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Asif Saeed Khosa may be different from his predecessor, the objective remains the same, bringing the rule of law back into the system. Without this, governance is a sham and the Sharif-Zardari kind of democracy nothing but hypocrisy. Justice Khosa has taken up the eradication of perjury as one of the cornerstones of criminal justice reform and of his personal contribution to mend the judicial system in Pakistan. Shortly before taking up the mantle of the CJP, he had emphatically declared his intention to build a “dam against fake witnesses and false testimonies”. More recently he observed in court “God willing, the era of quickly dismissing false statements will return”. He promised that the law providing punishment for perjury from now onwards would be implemented in letter and spirit. He said that a liar would not to be able to stand witness in any case in the future and if a part of a statement was based on perjury, the whole statement would be dismissed. Before becoming CJP, Justice Khosa had repeatedly said that all judges who handed out sentences on false verdicts would be held accountable. If implemented, this would surely be a step in the right direction. It will be a difficult task to put this through, especially in the lower courts in the country. The CJP will also need some prominent showcases to teach witnesses that lying in court is not advisable. Fake witnesses would soon be behind bars and the entire system will be back on track as soon as some offenders are sentenced to life in prison.

CJP Khosa reportedly said something else important as well. He said that “the people lie as a habit.” This is an extremely true and important observation made by the CJP. Lying in court is only the tip of the iceberg. Lying over the years has become something like a sport or a habit everywhere in daily life, starting from childhood. Ethical behaviour that should be taught in schools and families is compromised. Truth and truthfulness, justice, equity and fairness have become the victims not only in court but in all spheres of society.

To build a just society is one of the central purposes, if not the central purpose of a state. Because truth and justice are closely connected and interdependent, Islam has established truthfulness as a central characteristic of a Muslim. But today, this seems to be forgotten. The discussion around Articles 62 and 63 of our Constitution and the demands that we heard to delete them from this fundamental law of our country are a clear sign that being truthful is not regarded as a central value anymore.

Hence change is needed outside the courts of law as well. The first step would be to apply the laws that are already in place and apply them rigorously at all levels of the judiciary. But at the end of the day, laws can only bring justice if the people accept those laws as just. The main change, therefore, has to be made in the minds of the people. The connection between lies and injustice is a major fact that has to be considered and taken up in addition to the courts in our educational system and the media. Laws alone do not change the mindset of people. What is needed is a society in which liars are socially boycotted instead of appreciated for their cleverness.

Achieving such a change in society will surely take time, but the process has to be started now.

The writer is a defence and security analyst

Published in Daily Times, February 22nd 2019.