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Walking on fire to prove innocence continues in Balochistan


* Scholar says practice becoming urbanised is the biggest concern 
* Balochistan minister for human rights says practice a part of local traditions, government cannot eliminate it

By Malik Siraj Akbar

QUETTA: The gory practice of forcing alleged criminals to walk on burning coal to prove their innocence is frivolously disowned by many in Balochistan, yet it regularly draws hundreds of tribal spectators. 

The illegal phenomenon continues unchecked with increasing likelihood of the practice spreading to other parts of the country's least literate province.

Charbeli, as the practice of forcing alleged criminals to walk on burning coal is locally known, appears to supersede the criminal justice system and the state's writ.

A local veteran who is believed to have 'divine power to control the fire' is entrusted with the responsibility to monitor the practice. Firstly, a 12-feet long, two-feet wide and two-feet deep trench is dug which is filled with 480 kilogrammes of dry wood. The wood burns for around three to four hours. As the time to take the test of innocence approaches, the veteran walks close to the fire and chants religious prayers to bring the fire 'under control' so that it would, supposedly, not harm the innocent and only burn the guilty. 

Hundreds of people, including the friends and relatives of the accused stand around the burning coal when the accused walks on it. He is immediately taken by his relatives and put on a bed where his feet are put in a bucket filled with the blood of a freshly-slaughtered goat.

"If there are burn marks on his feet, the man is considered guilty and the jirga decides the further course of action against him. If his feet are not burnt, he is declared innocent and is delightedly received by friends and relatives," said Muhammad Ali, a local journalist who witnessed many such cases. 

Ali says sometimes three to four cases are adjudicated on a single day. The time to decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty is between four to 24 hours.

Last week, two such cases were reported from rural Balochistan. The incidents were witnessed by hundreds of people and widely reported in the media. There were widespread comments on the 'indigenous dispensation of speedy justice', except by the government and human rights organisations.

In the first case, reported last week, Muhammad Bakhsh alias Afghan - suspected of murdering a 12-year old boy Saddam Hussain Bohar - was ordered by a jirga headed by local tribal elder Ghulam Qadir Bugti, to walk on burning coal to prove his innocence. As Bakhsh's feet remained unhurt, he was declared 'white' by the jirga. 

In the second incident, two people, accused of murdering a boy and kidnapping three children, were asked by a joint jirga headed by tribal elder Ghulam Mustufa Rind and Dera Murad Jamali Tehsil Nazim Mir Zulfiqar Jamali, to walk on burning coal. 

Muhammad Darya was found 'guilty' as his feet showed burn marks afterward. However, the other accused skipped punishment because the fire did not burn his feet, purportedly proving his innocence.

Urbanised: "This is an inhuman practice in the name of 'tradition'. You punish a citizen by forcing him to walk on fire and then declare him 'innocent'," said renowned scholar and writer Professor Dr Shah Muhammad Marri. 

"My biggest concern is that this practice is becoming urbanised. In the past, it was merely a tradition started by the Bugti tribe but now it seems to be spreading to the Rind and other Baloch tribes. If the state does not ensure the provision of justice to its citizens, then I am afraid this practice would soon gain acceptance in more tribes of Balochistan," he said.

Marri, also a historian, said he could not trace the practice in Baloch history. In fact it was Akbar Bugti, the chief of Bugti tribe, who pioneered and encouraged this tradition. "This is an alien practice to the Marri, Mengal and other Baloch tribes. The latest incidents are shocking because they were carried out by tribes which were never influenced by the Bugtis in the past," he said.

Government: Balochistan Minister for Human Rights Basant Lal Gulshan told Daily Times that these practices were a part of the local tradition and no one, including the government, could eliminate them. 

He said all the government could do was condemn such incidents and 'hope' for an improvement in the situation. "What can we do with a practice that is 'acceptable' to the people themselves? If the government tries to interfere in their problems, the tribes would become hostile and resist the government," he remarked. 

A local tribal elder, Ghulam Nabi Umrani, said suspected criminals were forced to walk on burning coal to prove innocence for crimes ranging from larceny, rape, and abduction to murder.

"No one in the area objects to this practice because it provides speedy justice and is acceptable to everyone. You know the real condition of the courts. Who can afford to go there to waste money and time and get nothing in return?" he questioned. 

Balochistan Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs Rubina Irfan said the tradition did not have roots in Baloch or Islamic traditions. It was a man-made practice that was 'happily joined' by members of the community.