70 Murders, Yet Close to Going Free in Pakistan: NYT

70 Murders, Yet Close to Going Free in Pakistan
The New York Times, August 6, 2009

MULTAN, Pakistan — It has been 12 years since Fida Hussein Ghalvi testified against the militant who was charged with killing 12 members of his family. But some days he feels as if he were the one who ended up in jail. He still gets threats, his servants all quit and an armed guard is posted at his gate.

Most maddening is the fact that the militant — Malik Ishaq, one of the founders of the country’s most vicious sectarian group, whose police record has a dizzying tally of at least 70 murders — has never had a conviction that stuck.

In Pakistan, the weakness of the state is matched only by the strength of its criminals. When Mr. Ishaq was arrested in 1997, he unleashed his broad network against his opponents, killing witnesses, threatening judges and intimidating the police, leading nearly all of the prosecutions against him to collapse eventually.

Now, with the cases against him mostly exhausted, Mr. Ishaq, 50, jihadi hero and leader of the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, could be out on bail as early as this month. That prospect terrifies Mr. Ghalvi, whose world has shrunk to the size of his house in this central Pakistani city.

“My life is totally constrained,” he said. “I can’t even go to funerals. What have I gotten from 13 years of struggle except grief?”

Punishing criminals is a slippery business in Pakistan, where years of military rule have badly weakened the country’s civilian institutions, like its police force. Its criminal code dates from the 1860s. There are no modern-day forensics, shifting the burden onto witnesses, who, without a functioning protection program, routinely refuse to appear.

What is more, the country’s intelligence agencies have a long history of nurturing militants as proxy forces over the heads of the police. Few civilian victims, judges or even police officials dare to buck what Pakistanis take for granted as an untouchable network of support.

Such was the case with Hafiz Saeed, a cleric who was freed from house arrest in June, despite abundant evidence that his group was behind the attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed more than 160 people last year.

Mr. Ishaq is no exception. Pakistan’s spy agency, hedging against the Shiite revolution in neighboring Iran and in favor of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, began pouring money into hard-line Sunni groups like his in the 1980s.

These days, Mr. Ishaq, a cigarette dealer with a sixth-grade education who has been in jail since 1997 with 44 cases against him, no longer seems to have official support, police officers said. Even so, convicting him has been all but impossible.

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