If you were accused of being a terrorist in Punjab over the past two decades, there was about a 75 per cent chance that you would be acquitted. Three out of every four terrorism suspects arrested in the province over the last two decades were set free by the courts, according to data compiled by the provincial government.
Since 1990, there have been 800 incidents of terrorism in Punjab, of which 475 have actually been prosecuted. A total of 2,300 suspects were named in those cases, and about 2,200 arrested. Of those arrested, about 1,650 — or 75% — were acquitted by the courts due to a lack of evidence against them.
(Read: Accountabiliity - Amid increasing terrorism, anti-terrorism courts empty)
Public prosecutors, however, claim that the conviction rate was even lower than those numbers suggest. Chaudhry Muhammad Jahangir, Punjab’s chief public prosecutor, said that “terrorism” cases often included simpler crimes like abduction for ransom, etc, that were classified as terrorism because they were mentioned in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. Jahangir said that conviction rates on actual cases of terrorism were even lower.
Jahangir identified three major problems with the prosecution of terrorism cases that led to so many acquittals: lack of witness protection, defective investigations, and lack of forensic and other technology that would aid the investigation process.
Ali Amir Malik, the deputy inspector general of police for investigations, agrees, though he identifies the withdrawal of testimonies by witnesses – who are often threatened and intimidated by terrorist groups – as the primary cause for the low conviction rate.
(Read: Year 2010 for Punjab - Police manages to track only 20% of terrorism cases)
The Punjab public prosecution department has tried to improve its record by assigning a prosecutor with every case being investigated by the police or the counter-terrorism department. Yet the problem appears to be endemic.
For one thing, the government is not able to enforce even the provisions of the anti-terrorism laws that would aid it in the prevention of terrorism. The fourth schedule of the Anti Terrorism Act, for instance, allows the government to place almost draconian controls on the movement of terrorism suspects. Yet Malik Ishaq, a man convicted of killing over 70 people and placed on the fourth schedule of the act, was not only able to violate his curfew, but also to do so brazenly by openly touring in a large caravan across southern Punjab.
(Read: Terrorism tactics)
Both government officials as well as legislators have spoken of the need to amend the act. There now seems to be almost universal consensus on the need for witness protection, for instance, which is currently not accommodated at all in the law.
Several innovative proposals have been suggested to help that matter. Muhammad Azhar Chaudhry, a prosecution lawyer who has worked on such high-profile cases as the Benazir Bhutto assassination, told The Express Tribune that one method that might be used would be to amend the Evidence Act of 1984 to allow witnesses to record statements in front of a wider array of government officials, allowing prosecutors to have written statements before terrorist groups have had the opportunity to bully the witness.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2011.