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Performance on the anti-terror front

What merits scrutiny is whether messrs Zardari and Gilani have gone beyond lofty rhetoric on the “existential threat” to Pakistan

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times ,April 01, 2011

"n September 6 this year the nation is confronted with an existential threat from fanatics, zealots and extremists on the one hand and from the material devastation caused by the history’s worst floods on the other. While the former is testing our will to survive and live in accordance with our values and ideology, the latter is testing our ability, resourcefulness and resilience to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a natural disaster.” President Asif Ali Zardari’s statement on the Defence of Pakistan Day, September 6, 2010.

The lead partner in the ruling coalition i.e the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) primarily owes its current government to the aftermath of the country’s most tragic political assassination i.e. Benazir Bhutto’s murder on December 27, 2007. It was the worst blow to the PPP since the execution of father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in April 1979.

While Bhutto fell to a controversial judicial verdict, practically lorded over by a cunning general – Zia-ul Haq - Benazir went down in hitherto mysterious circumstances – surrounded by a deadly wave of violence,mounted by forces that project themselves as the modern-day jihadis against the US-led western imperialism and its allies. 

Benazir’s brutal elimination, therefore,should have strengthened the party’s resolve against forces of terror and extremism. She never shied away from publicly denouncing al Qaeda and its auxiliaries

What merits scrutiny is whether messrs Zardari and Gilani have gone beyond lofty rhetoric on the “existential threat” to Pakistan.

More specifically anti-terror legislation and the promise of reforming Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) offer the litmus to test the government’s crusade against radical forces, which essentially grew up in the 27,200 sq kms territory of FATA and have now proliferated all over Pakistan. 

Let us start with anti terror legislative framework; as of now, the primary legal document that guides the anti-terror cases is the Anti Terror Act 1997 (ATA), introduced by the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Crimes that fall within the purview of the ATA included murder, malicious insult of the religious beliefs of any class, the use of derogatory remarks in respect of the holy personage, kidnapping, and various statutes relating to robbery and dacoity.

This law came under heavy criticism by the opposition as well as lawyers such as Aitzaz Ahsan because of the broad definition of the so called terrorist acts. Most interpreted it as being a blanket cover available to the ruling government to include virtually any kind of violence as terrorism.

The ATA was first amended in October 1998 following objections and reservations by the Supreme Court, followed bythe introduction of the Pakistan Armed Forces (Acting in Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance (PAFO)on November 20, 1998, to deal with spiralling ethnic violence in Karachi. 

Then, in December 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, through another ordinance, expanded the definition of the act of terrorism and enhanced the ambit of the anti-terrorism courts to include several other provisions of Pakistan’s criminal court.

Another amendment to this anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Act was decreed on August 15, 2001, expandingthe purview of the anti-terrorism courts and instituted clauses to proscribe militant -sectarian outfits and freeze their financial assets . 

However no serious attempt has been made thereafter to provide a comprehensive legal mechanism for coping with the post 9/11 circumstances.

The current PPP-led parliamenthas failed toperform its primary task i.e. legislation to deal with Islamist violence all across the country. The ATA is inadequate for the current situation, providing little or no security for the judges, prosecutors and witnesses. It discards telephonic intercepts, press statements and claims by members of banned terrorist organisations as inadmissible.

Frustrated police and other law-enforcement officials say terrorist activities in the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) province, for instance,have increased because courts “honourably” exonerated most of the terrorists for this “lack of evidence.”

Mian IftikharHussain, the KPK information minister, claimed on February 24 after a cabinet meeting,that courts sentence only a small fraction of the terrorists who stand trial. 

Over 3,000 trials, including that of Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) Chief Sufi Muhammad, are still pending because the authorities fear that once produced before the courts – governed by Anglo-Saxon law – most of them would be acquitted. By implication then these alleged terrorists are being held in illegal detention.

Now coming to FATA; in his inaugural speech late March 2008, the prime minister had announced reforms in FATA. The President then announced some amendments to the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) on August 14, 2009, but implementation has not yet begun – despite the fact that FATA remains at the heart of current wave of violence as well as Pakistan’sincreasingly acrimonious relationship with the United States. FATA remains the most dangerous place in the world but Pakistan has failed to reform the legal system to deal with it. 

The ruling elites have failed in evolving a consensus over the total abolition of the colonial FCR. The parliament failed in even signalling its readiness to incorporate the amendments that the president had indicated two years ago. This happened at a time when the parliament has already passed a colossal constitutional amendment. 

The politicians have predictably blamed the army for the non-inclusion of the FATA reforms in 18th amendment. This begs the question: Did the 42 members of the reforms committee leave something in black and white on the issue of FATA reforms as part of the proceedings on the constitutional amendment? Not a single one of the 342 MPs opted to resign or speak out in protest tothe army’s opposition to FATA reforms. While the army bears the blame for the current mess given its historical reliance on non-state actors, politicians also share some blame. One tends to conclude that the three years of the government have seen no real attempt to address what the political leadership frequently refers to as the “existential threat and its source”.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk