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In Balochistan, ‘trial by fire’ is taken literally
A walk over burning coals is said to prove guilt or innocence
By Ghani Kakar
QUETTA, Pakistan – The fierce practise of forcing alleged criminals to walk on burning coals to prove their innocence is still a tribal justice system in many parts of the country’s least literate province, Balochistan.
This old tribal justice system, sometimes called “the ordeal by fire”, is locally known as Charbeli. It regularly draws hundreds of tribal spectators challenging the writ of state.
Adherents of this tribal system say that their faith protects them from injury and undergo the ordeal for purification, fulfilment of vows or proof of innocence.
Soon, 40 individuals suspected of various offences will have to face this trial by fire.
The key factor of the ordeal is the belief of the firewalker that he or she can walk over the coals without being burned.
The head of a local jirga, Wadera Khuda Bakhsh Marri, told Central Asia Online, “Walking on fire is a pure system of speedy justice. It needs nothing to explore; in a moment it declares the arraignment of an alleged criminal”.
The practise of walking on burning coals is still alive today because of its effectiveness, he added.
“You know the situation and justice of the courts. Who can afford to go there to waste time and money and as a result get nothing in return?” Wadera Khuda Bakhsh asked.
In Balochistan, the ordeal by fire is mostly experienced in settled areas, including Jaferabad, Jhal Magsi, Sibi, Bolan Dera Bugti, Kohlu Kahan, Dera Murad Jamali and related areas.
Doda Khan Mundrani, a tribal leader of the Dear Bugti District who lives in Quetta, observed the ordeal by fire in his area a few days back. He told Central Asia Online, “We are satisfied with such a trial because based on our faith there is nothing to hide from a jury there”.
The fire ordeal area is ten to 12 feet long, and two feet wide. Before the ordeal starts, a two-foot-deep furrow is dug and filled with 450kg of dried wood. The wood burns two to three hours before anyone walks across it, Doda Khan said.
“When the time for the ordeal is announced, the alleged criminal starts walking close to the fire. When he finishes, immediately his family members or relatives take him and put him on a divan, where his feet are put in a pail filled with the blood of a freshly slaughtered goat or sheep”, he added.
Doda Khan said, “A large number of people witness the fire ordeal, and if the fire walker is innocent, the burning coal will not harm him”.
If it burns his feet, he is found guilty and the jirga decides the further course of action against him, he added.
According to news reports, the newly elected chief of the Bugti tribe in the Dear Bugti District, Mir Aali Bugti, announced a fire trial for 40 people accused of crimes.
A senior lawmaker Kamran Khan told Central Asia Online, “Walking on fire to prove guilt is an inhuman and cruel practise and custom. It should be strictly prohibited”.
“The law and justice commission of Pakistan last year in December took notice of reported incidents of fire walking and declared it illegal“, said Kamran.
The legal commission recommended an amendment to the Pakistani Penal Code stipulating that someone who requires a suspect to walk on burning coals could face a fine and imprisonment of up to three years, he added.
“If the state does not ensure the provision of justice to its citizens, then I am afraid this practise would soon gain acceptance in more tribes of Balochistan“, Kamran said.
Fire walking is not unique to Pakistan. India, Japan, Malaya, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Tahiti practise it too, Kamran said. “There, it is believed that walking on fire is true faith practise and that it protects them from injury”, he said. “But I think all it happens due to a lack of awareness among the people”.
Maulana Muhammad Hamayon, a religious scholar, said, “Walking on fire is an illicit justice system and anti-Islamic tradition. There is not any law that could prove it fair; it is a man-made practise”.
“The fire ordeal persists into relatively modern times as one of the phenomena of spiritualism“, Hamayon said. “My biggest concern is that this practise is becoming urbanised and gaining more adherents. There is a need for awareness among the people to abandon and not believe in such exercises”.