The terrorism debate: flogging the wrong horse

In contrast to what NAP had promised regarding speedy trials, over 90 per cent of cases are pending in courts

Imtiaz Gul July 21, 2015
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Pakistan’s current debate on terrorism apparently suffers from an acute lack of understanding of the real issues that lie at the heart of its security crisis. Much of the discourse on the possible drivers of terrorism and radicalisation centres mostly on religious seminaries, partly for the wrong reasons. And this means a superficial diagnosis of the problem. This also suggests that the recipe prescribed can be equally skewed.

The majority of liberals hold madrassas responsible for both terrorism and the radicalisation of minds. The government, led by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar thinks the same. Politicians, in general, blame terrorism on the policies that the military establishment pursued in the past. They are equally contemptuous of the judiciary, which they say has been rather conformist.

The military, on its part, often claims that the civilian government and the judiciary carry the burden of responsibility for not being strong enough against alleged terrorists. Police experts say the conviction rate of terror suspects is disappointing because of lack of coordination between the police and the prosecution. “Completion of challans is delayed in cases in which the accused are unidentified, like wall-chalkings, and prosecution suffers because fresh law graduates inducted in the police department lack experience.”

Participants at a recent top-level meeting held in Islamabad to review the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) and the conviction of accused were surprised to learn that 90 per cent of cases are pending in the courts. This is in sharp contrast to what the NAP had promised regarding speedy trials, with day-to-day hearings taking place. Even cases registered under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) are not being heard daily.

The bench i.e., the judiciary apportions the blame on the bar and the executive. The superior judiciary, on the other hand, faults the lower courts and lawyers for the low conviction rate and execution of punishments. For example, Some 152 terror-related and 57 criminal trials in Sindh have taken as long as eight years to be completed, primarily because the prosecution and the lawyers fail to implement the apex Court’s National Judicial Policy aiming to clear the backlog of cases.

According to Section 19 (VII) of the ATA, 1997, the court must decide a case within seven days of the charges being framed. But statistics reveal that in Sindh alone 63 applications were filed with the Sindh High Court in 2014, challenging the verdicts of the anti-terrorism courts (ATC) established in Karachi.

“The total time consumed by these trials is estimated to be between one and seven years, with no decision yet,” a national newspaper quoted a senior judicial officer as saying. Similarly, eight special ATA acquittal applications were also instituted in the province in 2014, but none of them have yet been decided.

Similarly, the Rawalpindi district police reported recently that since December 2014, it registered 1,590 cases and arrested more than 1,900 individuals for violating the new anti-terrorism laws. A very shining performance, on the face of it. But senior police officials in Rawalpindi and Islamabad insist that “instead of implementing the NAP, the government is concentrating more on registration of cases under the new laws and cramming more and more people in jails”.

This is one good way of impressing the prime minister and his team with numbers, they say. That is why no action has yet been taken against 749 madrassas in Rawalpindi alone. Compare this with the 507 registered madrassas, which boast of over 74,000 students, including more than 100 foreigners.

Such delays prompted the Supreme Court’s monitoring judge for ATCs, Justice Amir Hani Muslim, to question the performance of the prosecution department in Sindh. Some lawyers believe that the prosecuting agencies and the legal fraternity are to be equally blamed for what they refer to as delayed justice.

This context entails two deductions. Firstly, the 1860 Criminal Procedure Code and the 1861 Police Act lie at the heart of the delays in prosecution. But without doubt, political interference and the legal fraternity’s vested interest continue to obstruct reforms. Secondly, those responsible for changing the status quo either willingly ignore the need or don’t understand the imperatives for change. As Pervez Hoodbhoy points out, they are flogging the wrong horse. It is not the madrassas per se, which are responsible for terror or extremism. It is the mindset that these institutions breed. It is the curricula that must matter the most if one wants to think of mainstreaming madrassas; children who do not know English, mathematics or science cannot compete “in the job market … and easily become the victim of conspiracy theories and become maulvis and qazis but not engineers, scientists or doctors”. The real challenge facing Pakistan is when it will whip the right horse rather than paying lip-service to addressing the existential threat.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd,  2015.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.