Bring your own bribe – II: So close to justice yet so far

The trail of bribe from the lock-up to the courtroom. PHOTO: FILE

The trail of bribe from the lock-up to the courtroom. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: The court police can either make or break a prisoner. It is up to them to present prisoners in a courtroom on time or with delay; to offer them a relatively open space or throw them into smelly, cramped cells, and to let them meet their families or to refuse visitation.

The prisoner is, at many times, forced to fill in the pockets of police officers with red notes or else suffer the consequences. “Please write about it. Write about it. We are poor people, why do we have to give them money?” a bearded inmate pleads.

For the incarcerated, paying bribes isn’t just restricted to prisons, as discussed in the first part of this series. It goes beyond that – all the way up to where the promise of justice is offered: the courts.

Inside the City Courts, police officers take money for everything: for putting prisoners in chains, opening locks, taking them to the courtroom, bringing them back, and letting them meet their families. So common has this unlawful practice become that police officers don’t think twice about putting money in their pockets.

Every morning, dozens of prisoners from the Karachi Central Jail are brought to the City Courts for their hearings. They arrive in completely enclosed prison vans and are straight away sent to the court’s lockup. The lockup is the inmate’s temporary place within court premises – housing five to six dark and dingy cells. Prisoners whose cases are being heard in the sessions courts – east, west, central and south – are kept in this lockup.

Bribing starts as soon as the prisoner enters the lockup and is demanded by the guard at the door to give him ‘salami’, which ranges from Rs50 to Rs100. This process is repeated when the prisoners return to the lockup after their hearing.

Once inside, the prisoner makes his way to a police officer, the ‘munshi’, who writes down information about the inmate and notes his entry. Words such as ‘Kharcha Pani’ (pin money) and ‘Corporate Karo’ are uttered to the prisoner, who nervously rummages in his pocket to hand out whatever he has.

Inside the court premises, prisoners are not required to wear handcuffs. Instead, they are grouped together in chains and multiple locks are tied on their hands.

In a room where their handcuffs are removed and chains are put on, the officer, Manzoor Hussain, commonly known as Chachoo, also allegedly demands money.”If we don’t give him money, he makes us stand in the corner and delays putting locks on us or removing them,” said an inmate, who hands him a sum of Rs50. After getting chained, the inmates are moved to cells. But by giving Rs100 to an officer, a prisoner is able to stand outside in the courtyard.

Money also determines the prisoners’ presence or absence in the courtroom. A conductor on Abdullah Coach, Hafeez, who was arrested in an operation against drug dealers, said he had been waiting since early morning for his hearing. It was 1pm now. “If I don’t give them anything, they can decide not to take me there at all.”

During their time in lockup, a prisoner can meet his family and relatives – a meeting which takes place outside the lockup where men and women sit on floor mats. This is where the police officers make the most money, by demanding family members to pay them anything between Rs200 and Rs500 to meet their loved ones.

A burqa clad woman brings Rs1,000 to 1,500 every time she comes to meet her son. Apart from bribing the officer, she gives the rest of the money to her son who then uses it to bribe the officer, and saves the rest, if there’s any left, for another court visit.

Now on her eighth visit, the woman hands over crisp Rs300 notes to a stout police officer who causally takes it. A man in shalwar kameez walks around to each group, while taking notes – probably noting down who has given money and who hasn’t.

“At home, my husband and four children eat daal roti to save money because when I come here, I make sure I have couple of Rs100 notes in my purse. I also save money so that I can bring chicken korma and karahi for my son so he can eat good food,” says the burqa-clad woman. Her son, a bearded young man, sits on the mat and has lunch with his family. “If a relative or friend comes to meet me, they would have to pay separately,” he says.

Moreover, inmates who want to make phone calls to their families are charged Rs50 to Rs100 by the police to use their mobile phones.

City Courts lockup in-charge SI Khalid Khan dismissed reports of bribery inside the City Courts and insisted that nothing of the sort was happening. Instead, he said the policemen stationed at the lockup try to facilitate inmates.

“We have, on our own, hired a sweeper to clean up the premises despite the fact that it was the duty of authorities,” Khan asserted. “The charges for it go out from our pockets.” He added even if someone was taking money from the inmates, it does not mean that the whole department is corrupt. “There is no organised bribe network.”

A thin man sitting with his family flashes Rs1,000 to a police officer, probably preparing to bribe the police for the last time during the day before stepping foot into the prison van and back to jail. But this probably won’t be his last time.

The system continues to feed the menace of bribery without an end in sight. Police officers assume it to be their legal right, while prisoners and families naively abide.

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