By Syed Raza Hassan
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Seemingly impervious to pain, the murder suspect runs bare-footed across a strip of sizzling coals, raising his arms victoriously as he completes the ordeal. A group of village elders then inspects his soles and declares him innocent.
In Pakistan's remote tribal belt, where the mainstream court system has no authority, such scenes are a feature of daily life despite an intensifying government crackdown on a practice which has changed little since mediaeval times.
Feudal lords still preside over gatherings, often arranged in secrecy, to settle disputes ranging from theft to murder, and to punish women for falling in love with inappropriate men.
In the latest case that has shed new light on the ancient practice, several men were declared innocent this week after walking on hot coals in a remote part of southwestern Punjab.
A shaky video shot by a journalist and obtained by Reuters shows one of the men walking the length of a 15-foot strip of coal in a parched mountainous terrain, as more than 100 ethnic Baluch tribesmen wearing turbans look on sternly.
If coals leave no marks on the soles, then the man is declared innocent.
"At first I was afraid, but then I asked God for strength. It felt as if an electric current ran through me as I walked down that path," the man, Hassan Ahmed, 51, said by telephone.
"People's faith in the jirga system is growing as it doesn't cost anything and provides quick justice, unlike the judicial system of Pakistan," added Ahmed, who denies any wrongdoing.
In a country where the formal legal system is often viewed with contempt, many in remote areas prefer the system of quick and rough justice handed down by gatherings of local male elders, known as jirgas, or panchayats.
Another man, accused of having an illicit relationship with the wife of a local tribesman, was also declared innocent.
The Pakistani government, its grip on the country already undermined by an intensifying Taliban insurgency, has tried to crack down hard on extra-judicial practices but efforts are slow.
In the latest case, police arrested one participant in the jirga and launched an investigation, but the feudal tradition is hard to shake because it is so deeply entrenched in tribal culture.
The areas are so remote it takes days for any news to reach urban centres where tribal justice is both ridiculed and feared.
"It's a total failure of our justice system that jirgas are still held," Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Reuters. "They provide instant justice to people, but that has serious repercussions."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in Multan; Editing by Nick Macfie)