At eight o’clock in the morning, Karachi’s City Courts look one with their surroundings. The morning breeze, untainted by the chaotic scents and scenes of the day to follow, flows past the colonnades and arches of the courts’ colonial-era sandstone structure. It also rustles through trees, pipals and neems, that take decades to get to their prime and provide a deep, cool shade. A koel calls out passionately from somewhere within them.
In this moment of quiet, there is a whiff of what Karachi once was — a colonial outpost with little life beyond the port and Saddar, the commercial neighbourhood where the courts now stand. Dogs roam around the place, leisurely and aimlessly. A deep sense of nostalgia pervades the atmosphere that makes one long for a time and a place one has never really known.
The courts seem to have imposed their own order on their surroundings. A bank, post office and a mosque are all lined by the left of the boundary wall. Food kiosks, stationery shops and bookstores are concentrated on the right.
As the day progresses, the past recedes and the present starts taking over. Order and organisation begin to give way to commotion and chaos. The grandeur of the courts’ structure is overtaken by the hustle and bustle of a judicial system full of reminders that it is not meant for the weak of the heart and the poor of the purse.
These reminders are everywhere: from the policemen who push away anxious family members of those being tried, to the judges who appear bored and exasperated before their job has even begun, to the conversations one overhears between lawyers and their clients — nervous, scared litigants being told “Aap toh baat samjhti hi nahin (You don’t even try to understand).”
The courts were originally built in 1847 as a prison and have six blocks — labelled alphabetically from A to F. Each block houses courtrooms for one of Karachi’s six districts. Each courtroom – which initially served as a barrack for prisoners – is usually not more than six-feet wide and 10-feet long.
People line up outside courtrooms, waiting for their cases to be heard. A court peon or pattaywala steps out of a courtroom every few minutes and calls out:
“Muhammad Iqbal aur waghaira”
“Saleem Ahmed aur waghaira”
Saleem Ahmad may be there but if waghaira – the others – are not, that will be all there is to the day’s proceedings. The case will be deferred to another day. So Saleem Ahmed – and countless other litigants like him – will have to come to the courts again and again, day after day, often for months, sometimes for years. Those who can afford to – thanks to their power and pelf – just send a lawyer.
In one courtroom in Block F, I witness proceedings in Abdullah’s case. He seems to be in his early twenties at the most. No lawyer is representing him. The judge calls him to the dock and tells him that his case has been disposed off, except that he has to provide a surety bond of 30,000 rupees.
By the look of his clothes, it is easy to tell that he will not be able to furnish the bond — certainly not for 30,000 rupees. I wonder if he even heard the judge right because the noise from the fans in the room absorbs much of what is said. But the courtroom is so intimidating a space and a sense of fear so tangible here that I know he will not say that he did not understand the order.
Now Abdullah’s case will become a file in a record room. There is one for each block. Cataloguing is a mystery here. It is remarkable how record keepers make sense of the files stacked one over the other.
The men working here say there is some method to this madness but the files have no date, year or any other mark of distinction. Kept in uncovered shelves, they all look the same. Insects have easy access to them and they are also not protected against general decay. Among these files must be many petitions by death row prisoners. On those petitions now rest empty, dirty cups of tea.
I see a man at the reception flipping through files. “Ye kya ho gaya hai, yeh kuch ghalat ho gaya hai (What is it that has happened here, something wrong has happened here),” he sings to himself. The lyrics and the tune are undoubtedly his own.
It is around 10 o’clock — an important time at the courts for this is when the ‘custody’ arrives. The term refers to under-trial prisoners who are brought into the courts in high-security vehicles from prisons or police stations. The vans look like deep blue graves on wheels.
A few inches below their ceilings, an opening – barely half-a-foot wide – runs along the entire length of their sides. Small vertical iron bars subdivide the opening, making it impossible for prisoners to get any part of their bodies out — except their fingers. Several hands, so many that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other, hold on to the bars from inside.
Each custody van is parked right outside a detention centre. One after the other the prisoners get off the van and get into the detention centre. The van is parked in such a way that no one can see those stepping out of it. Yet, family members of the prisoners continue to shove and shuffle in order to get a glimpse.
They stand outside, for hours, awaiting the peons to call out prisoners for appearance before judges. The detention centre is so ill-kept that it looks like a human zoo. People sit on the floor, their hands chained to one another with rusted, thick chains otherwise used for tethering livestock. In a few small barracks here, prisoners with mental illnesses are lodged. They must be kept behind bars at all times.
A sense of desperation is writ large on the faces of those detained here. One of them whispers to a visiting lawyer, asking for help, “Please take my mother’s number, call her.” He pleads that he has already served the maximum sentence for his crime. The only solace the place offers is a spiritual one: “Bismillah parh kay bahar niklain (Recite Allah’s name as you get out),” reads an inscription on the exit that leads to the courts.
After the prisoners get out of courtrooms, they are allowed a few brief moments with their families. As they walk into the open with their chains clanking and their locks dangling, their relatives rush towards them.
They seem to have not been here as much for the hearing as to have lunch with their imprisoned family members. A mother immediately takes out a plastic bag with chickpeas and a cold bottle of soft drink when she sees her son.
She selects a place in the shade by a staircase and sits there with her son — the rest of their relatives sitting in a circle beside them. Her son eats from the hand that is not chained. His family just watches him eat. Some people in other families take selfies with their imprisoned relative, marking moments spent together.
This article was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer holds an MSc degree in comparative political thought from SOAS, University of London.