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Murder Case Appears To Buck Trend Of Pakistani Corruption

Shahrukh Jatoi, top center, convicted of killing 20-year-old Shahzeb Khan, is escorted by members of the police to an Anti-Terrorism court in Karachi, Pakistan, on Friday.
Shakil Adil
Shahrukh Jatoi, top center, convicted of killing 20-year-old Shahzeb Khan, is escorted by members of the police to an Anti-Terrorism court in Karachi, Pakistan, on Friday.

"There are times when one's faith is restored in the judicial system here, in Pakistan," writes a gentleman called Sajjid Khan, in an unusually optimistic letter published by one of his nation's leading newspapers The Daily Times.

Pakistanis generally take a bleak view of their system of law and order, which tends to be dysfunctional and corrupt. Khan was inspired to put pen to paper by a criminal case that seems to buck that trend.

It concerns the killing of a policeman's son named Shahzeb Khan. The 20-year-old was shot dead in Karachi six months ago, yet two men have already been convicted of his murder. Such speedy justice is rare in South Asia, where criminal cases often drag on for years.

What really makes this case exceptional, though, is the identity of the convicted killers. One is the son of a high-rolling businessman, whose portfolio reportedly includes a cement factory, a TV station and real estate. Both are from feudal backgrounds.

Feudalism remains a powerful force in Pakistan. Like the rest of the ruling elite, feudal families are accustomed to impunity. When details emerged of the suspects in Khan's murder (which was the result of an argument about his sister being harrassed), few Pakistanis will have expected to see them punished.

"In Pakistan the norm is that the rich and well-connected operate as though they are above the law," said an editorial in Dawn newspaper this weekend. However, the newspaper concluded that in this case "justice has run its course, and was not perverted by power and influence."

Murders, kidnappings, bombings, militant attacks and more are such regular events in Pakistan that they often pass almost unnoticed. Yet Khan's killing touched a nerve among Pakistanis eager to signal that they're sick of seeing law enforcement routinely turn a blind eye to the crimes of the wealthy and influential.

Social media was flooded with demands for the police to move against the killers. There were street protests and the media took up the cause, as did Pakistan's Supreme Court. Khan's family piled on pressure. His mother says she was taking "a stand for the children of the nation" to ensure that "no son of a rich man" would dare commit such a crime again.

On Friday, the two accused — Shahrukh Jatoi and Siraj Talpur — were sentenced to death. Capital punishment is rarely carried out in Pakistan; their families plan to appeal against the sentence. Several other defendants, also involved, received lesser sentences.

This outcome has impressed Khan, author of that upbeat letter to The Daily Times.

"These feudal lords have been having their savage way with innocent citizens and their children for too long", he writes. "This verdict is a loosening of the noose they have around this country".

Others express similar views. Are they right?

This case certainly offers a glimmer of hope for those pressing for reform in Pakistan. Yet optimism should be treated with caution; a culture of impunity is deeply ingrained in the fabric of South Asia. In neighboring India, crimes committed by celebrities, politicians and policemen are also often unpunished. The national and state legislatures contain hundreds of politicians who face outstanding criminal charges, including for serious offenses, such as murder, rape and extortion.

When he was sworn in last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took charge of a country in which the state is weak and civil society is extremely fragile. Political killings and "disappearances" have become all too common.

It is worth noting another criminal case, reported by Dawn one day after Khan's killers were sentenced: A member of parliament appeared in court in the city of Khairpur. He was seeking bail on a charge of murdering a cadre from a rival political party on election day.

The court denied his bail application, yet he marched out of court, flicked a "V" for victory sign to a crowd of onlookers, climbed into his car and swept off into the distance.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.