Terrorism and our judicial framework


A lot needs to be done


At the outset of the century, the world was struck by an unprecedented wave of global terrorism which has since then dictated the terms of formal engagement among states. The 9/11 attacks jolted the international security apparatus and led to forming of new partnerships and rifts between old allies. The world embarked on the war against terrorism which extended from merely being a military combat to limits on civil liberties being imposed. The United States, a country that stands for liberty and freedom, was compelled to introduce the Patriot Act that authorised more surveillance and gave excessive powers to law enforcement. Europe and others soon followed suit.

The same reaction triggered in Pakistan in the aftermath of the deplorable 16/12 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Pakistan ordered the establishment of military courts across the country. This move did receive criticism from political and legal circles for conferring absolute power to the armed and paramilitary forces but was largely accepted by all stakeholders as the ‘need of the hour’ though it certainly wasn’t and still is not sufficient to eradicate extremism from its roots. Military courts, just like the military on the battlefield, are serving the purpose of firefighters and are doing a phenomenal job of it. But like all firefighters, they can only extinguish fire not prevent it from erupting again in future (read extremism instead of fire). And it is this area of policy that our government, parliament and political parties have blatantly ignored over the past decade.

Pakistan constantly defends itself as a victim, not a perpetrator, of terrorism throughout the world. However, the ineffective judicial system, something that I also pointed out in my previous article in June, releases majority of the terror suspects that our law enforcers get a hold of. It is no whimsical opinion that I am forwarding but is what official government data projects. in the period between 2007 and 2013, 1,964 terrorists were released by Pakistani courts out whom 722 rejoined terrorist organisations. Another of Pakistan’s English newspapers, Dawn, published in May 2014 that the acquittal rate of the Anti-Terrorism Courts across the country was more than double than the conviction rate. Just this week, the National Assembly was told that out of the 2,533 terrorists arrested in the last two years, 726 have been released by our courts with many other cases still pending.

For an aspiring lawyer like me, these figures are appalling, and erode confidence in our justice system for the man on the street. However, the question remains: Is our judicial system potent enough to try cases of such sensitive nature? Is our prosecution qualified to present a compelling case against terror suspects? Is our police competent to act swiftly on information and produce witnesses when summoned to? The answer is in the negative. The police, the prosecution and the judges are not adequately equipped. It is for this reason that the draconian military courts that shred away the ‘luxury’ of a free and open trial are welcomed as conferment of a blessing to the country.

Though it is not due to the fault of the judges or courts alone that terrorists are released, they themselves are preys of the vicious circle that has paralysed other state organs as well, namely the executive and the legislature. Judges are not adequately protected especially in light of the innumerable attacks on judges and court buildings. The prosecution is not properly trained nor sufficiently paid, police appointments are made not on merit but nepotism and a major component of evidence gathering, witnesses, are left in harm’s way with absolutely no witness protection scheme in place. The war that is being won by our armed forces on the ground, under this judicial framework is most likely to be lost in the courts of law.

The reaction to emergency measures such as the military courts to redeem the failings of our institutions are then preposterously viewed under the lens of civil-military power tussle, though such moves may have an impact on the said but they must not be sought to have an ulterior gain.

Recent judgments by our superior courts such as that of sentencing the assassin of Salmaan Taseer to death present a glimmer of hope for the future but the solution to fight this scourge of extremism is not hollowed protests but constructive engagement among all stakeholders to lay the foundation of institutions that do not have to firefight but to ensure that extremist thought is rooted out from the country so that one day no Pakistani has to either be a victim or a perpetrator of terrorism.