While the poor in Pakistan have always been quite painfully aware of how lethal a first information report (FIR) can be, it is the elite who only learn of its destructive effects when powerful men are made to suffer.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sent to prison with the help of an FIR. Gen Ziaul Haq used an old FIR against Bhutto to initiate a case against him. History remembers this episode as a ‘judicial murder’. Unfortunately, despite its three tenures in power and near-perpetual rule in Sindh, the PPP could never get that decision reversed, although it did make a lukewarm attempt under Article 186 of the constitution.
It is no wonder that there was so much controversy over the registration of an FIR after PTI chairperson Imran Khan was attacked in Wazirabad. In that incident, several shots were fired that wounded Khan and other leaders and killed a PTI supporter. The reason no FIR could be filed is that Khan wanted to nominate some powerful personalities in the FIR and police officers were not sure whether it was prudent to do so.
However, had the accused been ordinary people, the police would have registered a case against them quickly and sent them behind bars. The accused and their families would have kept making court appearances for years.
So, what is an FIR? Is it simply an application filed by an aggrieved party regarding a criminal act? No. The phrase ‘first information report’ is deceptive for people. One of my friends had their car snatched at gunpoint. He went to a police station and lodged an FIR. After some time, his car was found. Two years later, when he wanted to sell that same car, he was astonished to find that he could not do so as the car was registered in a case. He ran pillar to post for many months to get his car cleared from the courts.
I wish someone did a programme on what a day in the country’s criminal justice system looks like. They would find many people cursing their stars for lodging an FIR or for being nominated in one. They would also learn that those who are more powerful sit in the comfort of their homes while their attorneys seek adjournment for their cases.
In my 33 years of service in police uniform, I was approached on multiple occasions for the registration of wrongful FIRs against a complainant’s opponents as well as by the accused parties for the cancellation of FIRs against them. The complainants would want us to be harsh on those they wanted to falsely accuse, and those who were correctly nominated would talk about their human rights and seek concessions. I could not for the life of me understand why I was involved in such cases. The system should have worked independently and judged each case on its merits. Yet, things were never as simple.
During my time as the superintendent of police in District Naseerabad, I encountered a case where a dacoit died during a gunfight. The person’s relatives approached the court for registering a case against us under Section 22-A of the Criminal Procedures Code (CrPC).
In my naivety, I decided to ask the court to go ahead. I assumed that we would be exonerated in the investigation for being wrongly implicated. However, my staff advised me that if our name appeared in the FIR, it would take years to close the chapter. To cut a long story short, we eventually went to the dacoit’s family with a razinama (a compromise agreement). Later, as the IGP Sindh, I developed strained relations with the Sindh government because of an FIR. The provincial government wanted me not to register a case in a particular matter despite a court order but would not communicate so in writing. I went by the book and faced its disapproval.
It is worth noting here that the primary purpose of FIRs is to allow the criminal justice system to begin investigating a case. But there are numerous interpretations of Section 154 of the CrPC, under which FIRs are registered. These are more often used to give someone an advantage and rarely provide speedy justice.
Whether we like admitting this or not, there is no denying that the registration of an FIR marks the beginning of a vicious game of ensuring justice. When an investigating officer (IO) starts an investigation, the first step s/he takes is to send a threatening notice to the complainant under Section 160 of the CrPC, seeking further details of their and their testifying witness’s statement. If both parties patch up, the cancellation of an FIR carries a price tag.
The registration of a false FIR is a crime, and yet hardly anybody gets prosecuted. It is a well-known fact that numerous FIRs are registered regularly just to teach someone a lesson and bear no relation to any truth.
A few decades ago, the FIR was nothing more than an uncomplicated allegation – a charge of some omission or commission. After amendments to the law and the introduction of the Qisas/Diyat law, citizens became complainants and reduced the role of the state in this matter. Compoundable and non-compoundable dispositions for various serious offences were heavily impacted by this modification.
In some cases, depending on the complainant’s position, the accused are now arrested on the spot based on the FIR. Investigations, if any, are secondary. It is indefensible that there are over 80,000 suspects awaiting trial in 116 prisons and that some of them have been waiting for over five years.
Many of us have tried our best while in uniform to bring necessary reforms. Sometimes we succeeded, but sometimes we failed. Even though there are seemingly virtuous stakeholders, there is resistance to change and a propensity to exploit. It is time to update the 200-year-old CrPC and related laws to do away with the prevailing colonial mindset that corrupts the implementation of the law.
As an alternative to providing grounds for immediate imprisonment, the FIR should just be referred to as an ‘incident report’. It should be followed by an investigation, collection of evidence, and a thorough trial before the accused is indicted in a court of law.
It is also high time that perjury and false information in FIRs be rigorously prosecuted. Key players in the criminal justice system must take the bull by the horns and establish some justice in this sinful world.
The writer holds a doctorate in politics and international relations and has served as a federal secretary and inspector-general of police. He tweets @KaleemImam and can be reached at: email@example.com