By Katharine Houreld
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Each day, the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court confronts a stack of blue folders stuffed with desperate pleas from residents claiming that corrupt police, inept prosecutors or moribund lower courts have failed them.
The files detail heinous crimes, of newlyweds axed to death, children kidnapped and even an unsolved case of a young woman burned alive.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has won acclaim for punishing wrong-doers or delivering justice in a few well-publicized cases. But rather than staunching the flow, his interventions have unleashed a torrent of new claims as his court emerges as a beacon of hope in a corrupt and dysfunctional justice system.
"People think the government is not functioning, so the Supreme Court becomes the recourse," said lawyer Salman Raja.
This year, the Supreme Court has received more than 140,000 petitions, a more than 300-fold increase from the 450 petitions received seven years ago, according to court data obtained by Reuters. The court does not compile statistics showing how many petitions resulted in successful prosecutions.
Chaudhry's activism has established him as hero for many and turned the judiciary into a power centre in Pakistan's young democracy that has been ruled by the military for more than half its 65-year history.
But the deluge also highlights the struggle to build national institutions in a country of 180 million people that is beset by Taliban violence, daily power cuts and widespread poverty.
Chaudhry's defenders say he is the last hope for people abandoned by their leaders.
Critics contend his unique brand of activism has pitted the Supreme Court against civilian and military leaders, distracting attention from the urgent task of reforming a broken judiciary.
SYSTEM IN CRISIS
The Supreme Court has about 20,000 cases pending and there is a backlog of about 1.4 million cases nationally, according to a U.S. State Department report.
If cases reach any Pakistani court, only 5-10 percent result in a conviction, according to a 2010 report by the International Crisis Group on reforming the justice system.
Prosecutors are underpaid and overwhelmed and judges rely almost entirely on oral statements rather than physical evidence.
The system's shortcomings are vast. Investigators typically work on 30-40 cases at a time. Most police are poorly trained a n d officers have few opportunities for promotion, providing little motivation to solve cases, the Asia Society think-tank concluded in a report published in July.
Torture is common in interrogations because many police are not taught any other method, it added.
"Witnesses are scared to go to court," said Hassan Abbas, a former policeman who edited the Asia Society report.
"There's extra-judicial killings, people are taking the law into their own hands."
Against this bleak backdrop, victims increasingly cling to hope that Chaudhry will take up a legal cudgel on their behalf, but the top court is overwhelmed and results have been mixed.
In the imposing white marble headquarters of the Supreme Court in the capital, Islamabad, a team of young men working in the Human Rights Cell sorts through thousands of petitions stacked on desks and chairs.
Most are handled by lower officers, but about 20 percent are serious enough to land on Chaudhry's desk.
"If people don't get justice, society turns into a jungle," warned Qammaruddin Bohr, the new head of the unit.
Chaudhry personally intervened in a case after police took no action when relatives of Tasslem Solangi were accused of setting hungry dogs on a 17-year-old girl, then shooting her dead over inheritance. He ruled the police had been criminally negligent and ordered Solangi's uncle and others arrested.
But since then, her case has languished for five years in the lower courts and her family has gone into hiding, fearful of some of those accused who are now free on bail.
"I have no hope for justice," one relative told Reuters by phone before quickly hanging up, underscoring that even the Supreme Court has limits to what it can deliver.
Chaudhry is best known in Pakistan for standing up to former military leader Perez Musharraf. Black-robed lawyers in ties and waistcoats battled police in 2007 over Musharraf's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hold on to the presidency.
Since then, Chaudhry has become a central figure in Pakistani politics. This June, he dismissed former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for refusing to re-open a corruption case against the president.
The Supreme Court has intervened on issues from sugar prices to energy policy and the promotion of state employees - decisions usually made by other officials.
But Babar Sattar, a columnist, recently wrote that the court was "self-righteous, egotistical" and devoid of a vision for reform.
In June, Chaudhry intervened in corruption allegations against his son and received a reprimand from Pakistan's attorney general.
Chaudhry's decision to call an inquiry after a well-known television actress was found with two bottles of wine at Islamabad airport - an offense for a Muslim in Pakistan - fed accusations that he is prone to populist grand-standing.
Chaudhry's activism has set the tone for other senior judges. Provincial high courts are hearing more petitions but running up against the same congested legal machinery.
Taxi driver Muhummed Ihtisham's case shows both the courts' reach and their limits.
He petitioned the Peshawar High Court after his wife was tortured to death and their two toddlers thrown off a building in December.
Police had named Ihtisham as a suspect on the word of his wife's family. But the High Court ordered police to investigate, and they discovered phone records implicating his accusers.
Five of Ihtisham's in-laws were charged. Their case opened in August in a tiny court in the town of Mardan outside Islamabad. The case has been adjourned three times since because paperwork was not ready.
Ihtisham said his wife's wealthy, politically connected family wanted revenge for the couple's elopement five years earlier. They deny the charges.
"They have money. I don't. They have contacts. I don't. I just have a petition. I have no other option," said Ihtisham as he stared at photographs of his family's bodies.
"This has destroyed my whole world," he said.
With each blue folder placed on Chaudhry's desk, the expectations on the Supreme Court grow.
The court says it is cutting the backlog of cases, but many fear the gap between hope and reality in Pakistan is only widening.
"People are losing hope in the justice system," said Abbas, the former police officer. "They are losing hope in democracy."
(Reporting By Katharine Houreld; Editing by Michael Perry, Ken Wills and John Mair)