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November 16, 2017

‘Anti-terrorism laws exist only for ordinary criminals’


November 16, 2017

Islamabad :Despite establishing a parallel set of procedures for the custody, detention, prosecution and sentencing of terrorism suspects, Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act is not trying terrorists, says a new research conducted by ‘Justice Project Pakistan’ (JPP).

The report titled ‘Trial and Terror – The Overreach of Pakistan’s Anti Terrorism Act,’ was launched at a function arranged in a hotel here. Senator Farhatullah Babar, the Member of National Assembly, Shazia Marri, the former Senator Afrasiyab Khattak and Justice (r) Ali Nawaz Chowhan, the Chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) were present at the report launch ceremony.

The report prepared by the JPP documents the fundamental weaknesses in the country’s primary anti-terrorism legislation including a vague definition of terrorism, extraordinary police powers, heightened risk of torture and coerced confessions.  “More worrying still, it finds a lack of clarity on whether the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance applies to the ATA, seeing as at least 6 known juvenile offenders have been executed since the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted,” says the report.  Speaking on the occasion Senator Farhatullah Babar, praised the report. “Anti-terrorism laws almost don’t exist for terrorists, but only for ordinary criminals, in a broken criminal justice system. Similarly, implementing the death penalty has not deterred crime at all,” Senator Babar said.

NCHR Chairman Justice (r) Ali Nawaz Chowhan stated that the criminal justice system in Pakistan is a poor system that needs substantial reform. “The courts alone cannot bear all the responsibility for the prosecution of cases. There are problems with the police, which impedes quick justice. I have always suggested the moratorium and have intervened in executions” Justice (r) Chowhan said.

The PPP MNA Shazia Marri and former Senator Afrisiab Khattak also spoke at the report launch event. Afrasiyab Khattak said Pakistan's law against terrorism actually has an under-reach when it comes to trying and convicting actual terrorists. “The law is grossly misused, despite originally being aimed at convicting 'jet black terrorists," Khattak said.  MNA Shazia Marri was of the view that there is a narrative of terrorism and terror-phobia that the state has been trying to sell, undermining our current anti-terrorism legislation.  The JPP report, ‘Trial and Terror’ finds that of the 480 prisoners executed from Dec. 2014 to Oct. 2017, 76 were sentenced by the Anti-Terrorism Courts. However, 2 out of every 3 of these executions were for crimes that had no nexus to terrorism.

A 2014 study by JPP had found that due to the broad scope of the law, almost 86 per cent of those sentenced to death under the ATA were convicted for offences that bore little connection to terrorism as it is traditionally defined. This problem continues to persist today, made worse by the fact that last year, the ATCs handed down 31 death sentences.

Through a review of 27 cases, as well as interviews of law practitioners and those convicted under the ATA, the report confirms that the legislation creates a permissive environment for the routine miscarriage of justice and can lead to the wrongful executions of juvenile offenders.

ATCs continue to sentence juvenile offenders to death, despite the existence of credible evidence in favour of their juvenility and the JJSO itself. A Presidential Notification that orders that juvenile offenders sentenced to death before the JJSO was promulgated in 2000 have their sentences commuted remains subsumed by the ATA.

JPP’s research finds that out of the 28 juvenile offenders in Punjab who are listed by the Presidential Notification to be entitled to relief, 10 juvenile offenders were tried by Anti-Terrorism Courts. To date, 4 have been executed, while 3 have been released and 1, Mohammad Iqbal is currently awaiting execution. There is a lack of information available regarding the remaining juveniles.

‘Trial and Terror’ recommends that the scope of the definition of terrorism be reduced under the legislation, to make confessions obtained in police custody inadmissible and to explicitly bar the execution of juvenile offenders. All of these were echoed at Pakistan’s Universal Periodic Review, where it was recommended to the government to reduce the scope of the death penalty.

The JPP Executive Director, Sarah Belal, is of the opinion that as it stands, the ATCs do not differentiate between juveniles and adults, just like they don’t between a regular criminal and a militant.

“Terrorism courts must focus on terrorism alone, lest it undermines its own goals of curbing militancy. We are confident that the findings of this report will underscore for various stakeholders the dire need for to revisit the definition of terrorism under the Act. We need an effective counter-terrorism legislation that allows the ATCs to build their capacity and focus on trying real cases of terrorism,” the JPP Executive Director said.

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