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Pakistani woman acquitted after wrongfully jailed for 20 years

Published: Updated:

Asma Nawab spent two decades in jail, wrongfully accused of murdering her family. Finally acquitted, she is seeking a new life, free from whispers and memories.

Nawab was just 16 years old when someone slit the throats of her parents and only brother during an attempted robbery at their home in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi in 1998.

With the killings dominating headlines, prosecutors pushed for swift justice in a 12-day trial that ended with a death sentence handed to Nawab and her then-fiance.

The next 20 years were ”very painful”, Nawab, now 36, says tearfully.

At first the other inmates were skeptical at her protests of innocence, but eventually she formed a new ”family” of women - some convicted of kidnappings, others of murders.

asma nawab with her lawyer and shaking hand with her neighbor. (AFP)
asma nawab with her lawyer and shaking hand with her neighbor. (AFP)

They supported one another when progress on their cases was poor, or family neglected them.

“We would cry on Eid and other festivals... It was very painful. I would feel it intensely” when relatives failed to visit, she said through sobs.”Only once my uncle came to see me.”

Though her trial was speedy, her appeal moved at a glacial speed through the justice system.

Supreme Court petition in 2015

asma nawab in blue, going through a family album, all she is left with is memories. (AFP). (AFP)
asma nawab in blue, going through a family album, all she is left with is memories. (AFP). (AFP)

It was not until 2015 that her lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court, which - after a three-year hearing - ordered Nawab released due to lack of evidence last month.

“The verdict of this case was given in 12 days but it took 19 and a half years to dispose of the appeals” her lawyer Javed Chatari said.

Nawab said the acquittal left her stunned”I really couldn’t believe it” she said.

The verdict left her”perplexed” she said, and she struggled to understand what would come next.”How would I face the world after living so long in jail?”

The judicial system

Stories like Nawab’s are common, where the judiciary lacks the capacity to cope with the country’s surging population and an expanding case load, resulting in a mammoth backlog.

In 2017 alone, there were more than 38,000 cases pending in Pakistan’s Supreme Court in addition to hundreds of thousands awaiting trial across the judiciary, according to a Human Rights Commission Pakistan report released in April.

“Unequal power structures allow for people with advantage - money or power - to rise above the law. For the poor, the system is sluggish and sometimes is so weak that it is safe to label it as almost non-existent” said lawyer Benazir Jaoti, who specializes in women’s legal and political empowerment in Pakistan.

“Within the system, women are one of the groups of people that are significantly disadvantaged, it being a patriarchal society and a patriarchal system.”

Even when the system finally comes through as it did with Nawab’s acquittal, that is usually as far as it goes, leaving those whose lives have been dismantled to repair the damage with little or no support.

Asma Nawab visitin her lotted family home. (AFP)
Asma Nawab visitin her lotted family home. (AFP)

What’s next for Asma?

Nawab has had little to return to since leaving Karachi’s central prison in early April.

With her loved ones dead, her family house was looted then fell into disrepair.

Any potential compensation from the state will take time to process, her lawyer admits, acknowledging there’s a high chance she will receive nothing. In the meantime, she is unemployed.

During her first visit back to her humble family home she quietly wept as her lawyer broke the gate’s lock with a hammer.

“(The police) left nothing behind” she said after walking through the dilapidated house covered in dust and cobwebs.

“I lost my parents and now I see none of their belongings.”