Dawn Editorial 8 January 2021

Anarchy in America

IT was a side of America few could have imagined. As lawmakers were meeting in the Capitol — the seat of US democracy — to formally endorse the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the building, broke into the premises, vandalised offices, and briefly occupied the main floor of the house itself. Shockingly, the police stood by and abstained from using force to block the assailants from gaining entry into the building.
America was aghast. So was the world. Live images beamed across the planet showed the unruly mob scaling walls, breaking down barriers, and even occupying the chair of the speaker. Many commentators on American television described the attack as an attempted coup — an unthinkable episode for a democracy as grounded and established as America’s. Yet the unthinkable was unfolding live on TV and there was little the world’s oldest democracy could do to protect itself from itself. Anarchy had come to America.
In the end the coup did not happen. However, America stands damaged. The images from this fateful day — delirious, abusive and aggressive men and women wrapped in stars and stripes with some donning horned Viking helmets — will remain seared in the collective American conscience for a very long time. They will remind Americans that in the arena of democratic values and beliefs, they too are mere mortals and can be felled by one swing of their own sword. These images will also haunt Americans every time they imagine themselves perched on a ‘shining city on the hill’ looking down upon a messy world that is unable, unwilling or unworthy to carry the burden of democracy. Today this burden weighs heavy on America’s shoulders.
Equally significantly, America will now struggle to wield the moral authority it has always used in order to weaponise its foreign policy. How will American leaders now lecture the world on high-minded values wrapped in holier-than-thou rhetoric and how will the world keep a straight face while enduring such lectures? Americans may want to prepare themselves for the sneers that will keep coming their way for a very long time.
Beyond these impending agonies lies a deeper wound that is now festering inside America’s body politic; a wound that bled out the hate, vitriol and anger on display at the Capitol this Wednesday. America will need to heal itself before it attempts to heal the planet. United States today is a troubled society afflicted with a social, political and cultural sickness that has seeped deep into its folds during the last four Trump years. The new president will need to acknowledge it, diagnose it and then start to heal it. It will take a long time, but the world will wait because for all its ailments and psychological problems, America still matters to the world. Just a bit less so now.



Landmark verdict

IN a landmark judgement that is being welcomed as a triumph for women’s rights in the country, the Lahore High Court this week declared the two-finger ‘virginity’ test done on women survivors of sexual assault “illegal and against the Constitution”. In a 30-page verdict, Justice Ayesha A. Malik wrote that the virginity test “offends the dignity of the female victim” and was contradictory to Article 9 and Article 14 of the Constitution, which pertain to the security and dignity of a person. Further, she declared that virginity tests are “discriminatory against the female victim as they are carried out on the basis of their gender [and] therefore offend Article 25 of the Constitution”. The judgement also noted that such an examination had “no forensic value” in cases of sexual violence. The verdict is indeed an important one, for, notwithstanding that an ordinance passed by the president last year had already banned the archaic test, the verdict expands on the reasons that make it illegal. In a society where conversations around women’s rights and freedoms trigger backlash and even violence, such a development is a milestone. It also underscores the judiciary’s critical role when deciding cases involving sexual crimes, where elements such as forensics play a pivotal role. Significantly, Justice Malik found that the test is unscientific, offensive to personal dignity and discriminatory — a declaration that serves as a much-needed reminder that women are equal citizens and should be treated as such under the law.
While this obsolete method that humiliated and further traumatised the victims has been banned, there is more work to be done when it comes to investigating cases of sexual violence. Here, the role of medico-legal officers is key, as they carry out the detailed examination of the survivor. Not only must they be trained to gather and store evidence to forensic standards, an essential part of their education must focus on how to limit the trauma sustained by a survivor of sexual assault. Too often, women who approach the police and other law-enforcement personnel are subjected to judgemental attitudes and gaslighting. Complaints of character assassination, victim blaming and inherent bias are common. As was evidenced by the remarks of then Lahore CCPO during the ghastly motorway rape case, such attitudes are unfortunately prevalent even at the very top. It is now the responsibility of the federal and provincial governments to go further and dismantle systemic gender discrimination.



Mentally ill inmates
WITH capital punishment still on the statute books, Pakistan’s criminal justice system has a long way to go before it can be considered humane. That mentally ill prisoners are on death row awaiting execution is even more repugnant to human rights. The Supreme Court is at present seized with a review petition moved by three death row prisoners suffering from mental illness. They have asked the five-judge special bench to review an apex court decision from 2015, which held that the individuals had been rightly convicted, and that there were no mitigating circumstances for reduction in their sentence. Barrister Haider Rasul Mirza, as amicus curiae, offered some suggestions before the court on Wednesday that are worth considering. Among these, he proposed that prison rules be amended to provide for regular psychiatric evaluation of death row inmates to determine the state of their mental health. Barrister Mirza also suggested that the law should be amended to provide for a mental health facility in the medical wing of at least one major prison in each province.
Pakistan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that urges countries practicing the death penalty to not impose it “on a person suffering from any mental or intellectual disabilities or to execute any such person”. Capital punishment — which Dawn opposes on principle — is retributive in nature, but to carry it out on a person who cannot comprehend why he or she is being punished serves no purpose whatsoever. Ghulam Abbas, one of the aforementioned petitioners, was to be hanged in June 2019, but the Supreme Court stayed his execution — a mere two days before it was to be carried out. In October 2017, the apex court stayed the execution of another petitioner, Imdad Ali. It was while hearing his case in 2016 that the court declared that schizophrenia did not count as a legally defined mental disorder. One can only hope that the criminal justice system is moving towards a better understanding of mental disorders.

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