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Subcontinental Drift: Trials and Errors
Justice isn't served by scared judges and politicians

July 27, 2000
Web posted at 12:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 12:00 a.m. EDT

It has been a sad week for justice on the subcontinent. First, an anti-corruption court in Pakistan sentenced ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Nawaz Sharif to 14 years in jail. Then a Bombay judge threw out a case against the city's most infamous resident, Bal Thackeray.

Both verdicts owed less to evidence than to intimidation. Pakistan's judiciary is cowed by the country's dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, who has forced judges to pledge loyalty to his regime -- those who refused were sacked. In Thackeray's case, a succession of politicians lacked the courage to order a proper investigation into his activities, leaving the court with little option but to dismiss the charges of inciting religious hatred and violence.

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Few Pakistanis will shed any tears for Sharif. He is widely regarded as one of the country's most corrupt politicians, and his 14-year jail term for tax evasion seems, if anything, charitable. (He is still being tried on a number of other charges.) But justice served by a shackled court is no justice at all, and it is rarely carried out in full. A reader of recent South Asian history can confidently predict that, when Musharraf goes the way of previous dictators, Sharif will reemerge from prison and successfully challenge the verdict, on grounds that it was delivered by a judge whose own hands were tied.

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If Pakistan's judiciary is shackled by a military ruler, India's judges are often blindfolded by its political leaders. So it was in the case against Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena, a hard-line Hindu-fundamentalist party. The charge was seven years old: Thackeray was accused of writing inflammatory essays in the Shiv Sena newspaper Saamna, exhorting party workers to attack Muslims in revenge for the killings of Hindus in the religious riots that wracked Bombay in 1993. There were a number of other charges relating to his role in those riots, but most were dropped by a coalition government that included the Shiv Sena. Even when the party was defeated in elections last October, the new government was reluctant to order a thorough investigation of the charges, for fear that Thackeray might again order his "troops" to run riot. As a result, when the sole surviving case against him was brought before the court Tuesday, the judge ruled that it was too old to try.

The sorry episode allowed Thackeray to reprise the role he has perfected over the years: the schoolyard bully. When rumors of his likely arrest spread last week, he threatened to unleash another round of rioting, effectively holding India's commercial capital to ransom. In the end, he was indeed arrested, but for only two hours.

What a sham. What a shame.

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