Karachi, Pakistan – In the sweltering heat and humidity of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, Salma was packing up her tiny suburban home. Her husband had been murdered there, shot in the middle of the night.
After he was killed, her in-laws insisted she return to her village with her three children, all under the age of six.
Having nowhere else to go, her own family had abandoned her when she married for love, Salma, 32, obeyed her in-laws and returned to her house to pack her belongings.
She was about to change her one-year-old’s diaper when police officers arrived to arrest her on suspicion of killing her husband – a charge she has repeatedly denied.
“I didn’t know what was happening. They didn’t give me time to change the baby, just pushed me in the van and took me to the lock-up,” she told Al Jazeera.
She was forced to leave her children, who were crying hysterically, with her in-laws whom she claims had framed her for the murder.
“I haven’t seen them for a year, ever since I came here. My in-laws don’t let me even talk to them,” said a tearful Salma, whose name like that of other inmates in this story has been changed to protect their privacy.
In Pakistan, there is a strong social stigma associated with incarceration, especially for women. Many are abandoned by their families upon release. Some do not even file for custody of their children, fearing their jail time will cast a shadow on their children’s future.
Salma said she was detained for six days with male prisoners. She was slapped, kicked, punched, and threatened in the lock-up by the police as they attempted to extract a confession.
The criminal justice system in Pakistan has serious shortcomings. Jails are packed beyond capacity, and human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about arbitrary detention and custodial torture.
In light of this, an attempt by the government to legally empower prisoners would appear to be an unusual effort. Yet it is happening here.
In a first-of-its-kind legal training programme in Pakistan, inmates in the southern province of Sindh are receiving paralegal training by legal experts.
The idea is simple. Prisoners serving long sentences are seen as assets who can use their experience with the complicated criminal justice system – along with special training by legal aid workers – to guide and educate new inmates in need of legal assistance.
“This is the other side of the coin,” said Nusrat Mangan, inspector general of prisons Sindh. “Our job is mainly focused on the rehabilitation, reformation and reintegration of the person into the society. We are trying our best to give the society maximum results.”
Lack of legal help
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, there were 84,315 prisoners in the country at the end of 2016, while capacity was only for 46,705. Nearly 70 percent of these inmates still face trial. Almost all are poor, have little or no understanding of their legal rights, and many have not been provided a lawyer.
Salma is one of 14,000 people on trial in Sindh province. She is also among some 200 incarcerated women in the southern province, the majority of whom are accused of murder. Such cases can typically take between five to 10 years to resolve and may result in life imprisonment or the death penalty.
More recently, the release of a woman after she spent 20 years in prison, wrongly accused of murder, has highlighted the excruciatingly slow justice system of the country.
“It is a captive audience,” said lawyer Haya Zahid of the Legal Aid Office, who, along with her team of legal aid workers, offers classes to the prisoners.
Zahid’s team has provided 1,100 inmates with legal literacy training in nine prisons across the province since 2014.
Now, some 50 specially trained convicted prisoners are offering legal awareness to a population of about 5,000 inmates in Karachi’s Central Prison to men and women.
Salma was moved to the Central Prison for women in Karachi after her initial detention. The facility is worlds apart from most jails in the country. It is not overcrowded and offers an array of programmes, ranging from legal training to beautician courses.
The classroom where sessions are held is on the prison’s premises. Brightly coloured wooden chairs are set up in tight rows, all the way up to the walls, to make more room for the students to sit.
Sajidah, an inmate in her late 40s, began the training session with an interactive introduction to crime and punishment.
“The law requires that after you are arrested, you should be taken to a magistrate within 24 hours,” she told the class.
“Twenty-four hours? I was kept in the lock-up for 14 days,” one inmate exclaimed upon learning her legal rights.
A heated discussion ensued about illegal detention.
Zahid, observing the discussion, said she believes legal awareness builds women’s capacity to think and make the right decisions for themselves.
“Providing a woman in a conflict situation with legal awareness and helping shift perceptions from ‘I need justice’ to ‘I am entitled to these rights’ … that’s rehabilitation of the mind,” she said.
But not everyone is on board with the results of the programme.
Sohail Yafat, an investigator at rights group Justice Project Pakistan, said rehabilitation programmes have their limitations.
“It is beneficial but don’t put too much hope in it when talking about thousands of under-trial prisoners,” he told Al Jazeera.
Yafat spoke out of personal experience. He had been imprisoned for 10 years and then acquitted by a court for lack of evidence.
“Prisoners are mostly illiterate or have a poor educational background. So the benefits they can draw from such programmes are also limited,” he said.
But Fatima, 42, who is serving life-sentence in Karachi’s jail, said the legal education programme is helpful.
“We knew absolutely nothing about the law. Police arrested us, and we came here,” she said. “Whatever someone told us to say in court we said it without knowing about the implications. But now we know, and we teach the newcomers.”
Fatima volunteered to become an inmate trainer at the Women’s Prison earlier this year. In recognition of her service, she and other legal trainers could get a 15-day reduction in their sentences at the discretion of the inspector general of prisons.
Zohra Yusuf, a rights activist in the country, described the programme as “incredible,” but said it would need a long-term commitment by the government.
“Certainly, there is scope. But unfortunately, it is not the system that matters as much as the persons and their place and position of authority,” she said.
Marwi, who was convicted of fraud, has been fighting her legal case for several years. She said funding for the programme could be better spent.
“Shouldn’t the government use all this money to expedite the justice system? I will eventually get released, but who will bring back the years I have spent without my family?” she said.
At the same time she is determined to put her newly gained legal knowledge to use.
“I will fight a legal battle when I get out,” said Marwi. “I am not going to sit quietly for being detained for so long. I will go to the highest authorities if needed.”