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Frozen in action

The burden of guilt for Farzana’s murder has been put on the people who were present at the time but did not intervene. Would introducing legal provisions force people to act?

Frozen in action
It is the contract between the state and an individual. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Farzana is a household name now. Images of Iqbal, the man she married against her family’s consent, holding a passport-size picture of Farzana, have been flashed across all media outlets. She was the ill-fated woman who dared to step beyond her prescribed boundaries and was brutally murdered outside the Lahore High Court — ironically, a place where the people come to seek justice.

“The group of people who were with Farzana were coming down from an adjacent road to Fane Road,” a gatekeeper present in the area tells TNS. “It is here that they were ambushed by two large groups of people coming from both sides of the road. They started fighting with each other. It was between this that a few people, five or six, dragged Farzana by her dupatta, to the opposite end of the road. They took her to a corner and started beating her with bricks.”

The gatekeeper narrates the whole incident on condition of anonymity. He is the only person in the area who still admits to having witnessed the incident, others have one excuse or the other at the ready.

According to the owner of a small tea stall, right next to the point where Farzana was killed, “I had gone to fetch some milk at that time.” Despite this testimony, with some cajoling, he seems to give in: “I’ll tell you what I’ve heard from people. They fought for half an hour amongst themselves and two shots were heard. The police did nothing.”

This is the extent to which he would talk. Beyond this he will not admit to anything and maintains he was not around.

Farzana was killed at 7:45am, as per police reports. The court opens at 8am, making her place of murder a busy intersection. “According to my estimate, there should have been around 15 to 20 people [bystanders] present in the area at that time,” says SP Umer Cheema. (The murder took place in his jurisdiction.)

People now want to distance themselves from the whole messy business. The 15 or 20-odd people that might have been there at the time are nowhere to be found. Gatekeepers, shop owners and rickshaw drivers usually present within the vicinity around that time say on that day they were either away, had come late or simply refuse to talk.

Countries around the world such as France, Russia, Serbia and most of Latin America put a ‘duty to rescue’ under tort law on people present at such a scene.

A young boy, possibly in his late teens, working at a biryani van, points to its owners and says, “They weren’t here at the time. If they had been here, they’d have definitely acted. They are ex-military people, you seem, and can also fire guns.”

The two men sitting inside the van nod in agreement.

There seems to be an understanding among the people working in the area that they froze at a time when they should have acted. Those who weren’t present on the scene must go on bragging about what they would have done.

“No one ever comes forward in crime cases taking place within the public eye,” adds Cheema. “There are various points at which people can act. Either they intervene while the crime is taking place or they report it, or they can help the victim after the incident took place by coming to his/her aid and call a rescue vehicle.

“It is extremely uncommon that the people intervene when a crime is happening,” he says. “Afterwards, though, at times the bystanders do come to the victim’s aid and if nothing else call an ambulance or a rescue service. This is also not very common.”

The million-dollar question that arises is: Could this simply be the ‘bystander effect’ where responsibility of an individual is diffused and, as a result, large groups of people fail to act?

Social psychology highlighted the bystander effect after the murder of Kitty Genovese, a woman stabbed to death outside her apartment building in New York in 1964. It took ten minutes from the point she first started screaming for help for someone to call the police while no one physically came to her aid. Countries around the world such as France, Russia, Serbia and most of Latin America put a ‘duty to rescue’ under tort law on people present at such a scene. The most famous case in this regard was seen in France, where the photographers present at the scene of Lady Diana’s accident were investigated for not assisting a person in danger — an offense which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Good Samaritan laws also exist in a lot of these countries including the US, Canada and China. These laws protect the people who help someone from being accused of causing harm to the injured person. These laws aim to encourage ordinary citizens to help. The question remains whether the introduction of such laws can enable people to act in such situations?

The burden of guilt for Farzana’s murder has also been put on the people who were present there but did not intervene. It has been termed a lack of social consciousness by many. Would the introduction of such provisions within the legal system enable people to act? Will it propel our social consciousness?

The case is not as simple. Babar Sattar, renowned lawyer and columnist, places the blame on the “system”. “You don’t have a citizen-friendly police,” he declares. “What is it that you would write in a statute book that would encourage people to act if the police is corrupt and ineffectual?”

On another note, he removes the burden to act from the bystanders by saying, “As part of our political theory, if you look at the social contract, it is the contract between the state and an individual. Another citizen present at the scene can be charged for abetment if he encourages something but they have to protect themselves too. The idea of a bystander laws is conceptually wrong; you cannot place an affirmative liability on people.”

The biggest problem with the implementation of such laws would be that it will be difficult to tell if the person present on the scene was even equipped to handle the situation. In a country like Pakistan, people are afraid to act for various other reasons as well – terrorism being one of them. There is a complete failure of state institutions to protect them and, therefore, getting involved in anything out of the ordinary, especially a violent crime, could mean involvement and implication in something larger.

“When structured institutions are not able to protect themselves how do you expect people to trust these institutions to protect them, especially an innocent bystander?” asks Sattar. “State institutions are loaded in favour of perpetrators. Police, government, judiciary all are usually with the perpetrators.”

This fear of institutions is clear since the people are not only reluctant to stop a crime in action. Even later, at times, they refuse to come forward and testify or talk to the police.

Umer Cheema agrees: “Trials often last years and it becomes impossible for people to come to the court repeatedly.”

In Farzana’s case, her husband’s family has come forward to testify against the perpetrators, since they are directly related to the victim. Usually, it is not as easy as the people present on the scene to opt for silence, just like they have now.

Behind all this lies a lack of social consciousness. “People believe it is the responsibility of the government. Why should people do something?” says renowned human rights activist I.A. Rehman.

What is more shocking is that according to various media reports and court proceedings, the police officers present in the area also failed to act. Lahore High Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial in his observation while taking notice of the case said, “The incident shows the apathy of the police authorities stationed around the Lahore High Court about the incident in which a pregnant woman was killed about 100-metre away from the gate of the court.”

Farzana’s murder took place in the heart of Lahore at a bustling intersection. No one present around the area took mercy and tried to prevent her murder, helped or stopped the large group of people who had attacked her from escaping (that too, on foot), or came forward to testify afterwards. The police themselves stood dead in their tracks, guarding the High Court gates.

According to the government prosecutor, they could not move from their position — not even suspend their “vigilant protection of the gates” to stop a murder.

“People have no civic sense,” says Rehman. “Society has atomized and become more selfish. Lahore has grown as a city and so people have become more alienated,” he concludes.

One comment

  • Sadly, we seem to have become insensitive to terrible crimes and tragic happenings around us. After a bomb blast we ask: how many people got killed? Two! Oh, OK! We’re unmoved. This sad aspect of Farzana Perveen’s brutal murder puts in plain words the growing apathy and indifference among us as a nation. Thanks to the writer for highlighting this aspect!

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