Tightening the noose

March 20,2016

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There is a tight, uncomfortable noose around key individuals belonging to banned organisations. Yes, to the uninitiated observer, the recent amendments to the terror laws would seem very effective. After all, they are a pretty debilitating set of restrictions: the travel documents of these key individuals will now be blocked, they will not be able to open bank accounts and they won’t even be allowed to get cellular SIMs registered in their names. Ditto for driver’s licences.

But this optimism sours when one looks at the laws that were already in place before these amendments. According to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, individuals listed in the fourth schedule could not visit airports, railway stations, bus stands, telephone exchanges etc. They could not visit local village fairs, cinemas, theatres, amusement parks or even restaurants. The original law was certainly strict in its own right.

And how do you think that has played out? By law, persons listed in the fourth schedule cannot visit schools, colleges and institutions where persons under 21 years of age or women are given education. Yet, such persons are running madressahs all over the country. By law, they cannot visit radio and TV stations; yet, these individuals often appear on TV talk shows as guests. By law, they cannot go to airports; yet, they actually enjoy VIP security at the airports. By law, they cannot appear at the scene of any public meeting or procession; yet: they take out huge rallies.

And these are political rallies to boot; those listed in the fourth schedule took part in the recently-held local bodies polls across the country and mainstream political parties even forged local alliances with them.

Clearly, it is not an issue of just the law. The new amendments are good, no doubt. But the older law, enacted by the same political party that is in power now, was a pretty sturdy bulwark in its own right. What went wrong, you may ask. The problem here is one that isn’t restricted to the war against terror, but all aspects of public life – taxation, urban zoning or sanitation. The problem is enforcement. You can have as many laws as you want, carefully worded and meticulously planned, but until they are enforced in letter and spirit, they will remain lifeless scribbles on pieces of paper.

I remember when I took up the matter of the free movement of a fourth schedule individual – against whom an FIR for the violation of the same law had also been lodged – with the district police officer of Jhang, he replied, “is it not enough that we have hung a sword (FIR) on their heads?”

No, it isn’t. It most certainly is not enough for the sword to be hanging on their heads if it never falls. In fact, perpetrators now don’t even see this as a metaphorical sword. Our republic needs to get its act in order.

Currently, these individuals call on ministers, DCOs, DPOs and other top bureaucrats, accompanied by their workers. They even build social capital from this and become even more respectable and influential in their communities, leading to a positive feedback loop that eventually makes them virtually untouchable. It’s time to break that cycle and ensure that no one from the higher civil bureaucracy meets them.

There needs to be political ownership of this clear and present danger; and serious, goal-oriented officers should be tasked with heading up the campaign against them. Within this spirit of being goal-oriented, the very promotions of DPOs and other police officers should be linked with the implementation of the anti-terror laws.

The Counter Terror Department (CTD), though headed by police officers, has proved to be a better and more focused body than the district police when it comes to dealing with these individuals. Earlier, the local police, perhaps acting upon some local compulsions, used to connive with these individuals and not provide the relevant records to the courts, leading to the removal of the individuals from the lists. After the establishment of the CTD, these individuals are now closely monitored.

In the end, the behaviour of the state also needs to be observed. With the sacrifices of the valiant jawans and officers of the Pakistan Army, there is a need for everyone to be on the same page, so that those sacrifices are not in vain. Back in 2007, I pointed out to the then president Musharraf that Ahle Sunnah Wal Jammat leader Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi was leading a procession from Toba Tek Singh to Jhang, although he was listed in the fourth schedule. I asked him how we could win our fight against terrorism if such blatant violations of the law were allowed. Perplexed, Musharraf looked at the then DG IB, Brigadier (r) Ijaz Shah, who replied, “Sir, he is our man.”

I insisted and the president, after a long debate, agreed with me. All the organs of the state need to be on the same page when it comes to dealing with this existential problem.

In the end, I would again like to stress the importance of the competent enforcement of the law. In the pristine halls of our chambers of legislature, the text of the law may seem neat and cogent. But the real test of those laws is in the real world.

The writer is former federal minister. Twitter: sheikhwaqqas


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