In Pakistani courts, an employee loudly calls out the names of plaintiffs, defendants, and their respective lawyers before a judge begins to hear their case.
But one such customary roll call last week in a courthouse in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan Province, was answered with crying and sobs following the name of Baz Muhammad Kakar.
Justice Jamal Khan, a 55-year-old judge from the Balochistan High Court, couldn’t control his emotions as he recalled the energetic young attorney who often made lengthy legal arguments before him.
Kakar was one of the 74 people killed on August 8. Kakar and 64 other lawyers were the main target of the suicide bomber who detonated a belt laden with explosives and ball bearings. The attack, claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction as well as the Islamic State, also injured more than 80 lawyers who had gathered to collect the body of a colleague assassinated earlier that day.
The attack has devastated Balochistan’s legal community and has jammed the wheels of justice in the restive region, which is dealing with simmering separatist violence, devastating attacks by Sunni extremists, and a wide-ranging military-led crackdown against ethnic Baloch nationalist factions.
“Since the August 8 attack, there has been no progress in resolving even one case out of thousands. Everything is at a standstill,” said Abdul Latif Kakar, Balochistan High Court’s deputy prosecutor general who witnesses grief and frequent breakdowns such as the one at the provincial apex court last week.
“There are judges and litigants, but no lawyers,” he added. “Most of the lawyers in our city have either been killed or injured or are tending to wounded colleagues at the hospitals in [the southern Pakistani city of] Karachi.”
Latif Kakar said very few hearings are being held at the Balochistan High Court or lower courts such as the sessions, antiterrorism, and civil courts. These lower courts adjudicate criminal, terrorism, and family and property disputes in the beleaguered province, where thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in attacks by secular Baloch separatists and the military’s counterinsurgency sweeps since 2004.
Quetta’s tiny Shi’ite Hazara minority has borne the brunt of most attacks by Sunni extremists.
Amid government corruption and complaints of negligence and discrimination by the powerful military and central government, Quetta’s vocal lawyers often served as the mainstay of civic activism in the troubled region. They were at the forefront of protests against enforced disappearances, targeted assassinations, and other grave human rights violations common in Balochistan.
“Only the Balochistan High Court held as many as 500 hearings every day,” Kakar said. “Now the courts are unable to deal with even just a few cases.”
Nasibullah Achakzai, another lawyer, said most senior Quetta lawyers and barristers were killed in the attack, and it will be difficult for junior lawyers and apprentices to fill their shoes.
“People here are saying we will need another 50 years to fill this vacuum, but I think it is a much bigger loss and will be difficult to repair,” Achakzai said. “Litigants typically look for known attorneys to look after their cases, but very few people of that stature were spared in the Quetta carnage.”
He said the few lawyers not affected by attack have now decided to help the clients of their deceased colleagues.
“We will do whatever we can to keep to pursue these cases,” he said.
The effects of the Quetta tragedy are magnified by the fact that only a quarter of Balochistan’s estimated 10 million residents are literate. Most of the lawyers killed were the first generation of educated professionals from among the region’s predominantly tribal Pashtun and Baloch communities.
Munir Ahmad Khan, a member of the Balochistan Bar Council, said his association has registered nearly 2,800 lawyers since it was established in 1976.
“Given this number, our loss is staggering. This number includes all the lawyers who have retired, died, or become judges during the past 40 years,” he said. “Before the attack, there were 300 to 350 practicing lawyers in Quetta at most.”
He said that among the injured many are unlikely to resume their jobs because they have lost limbs or sustained life-impairing injuries.
Khan said he sees decades of complications ahead for Balochistan’s judiciary.
“It will be difficult for the trainee lawyers to gain the experience and finesse of those lost,” he said.