Lacunas in Anti-Terrorism Law of Pakistan

Sarmad Ali

The conviction of terrorists in Pakistan is low despite Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 which was enacted to deal with terrorism in Pakistan. Pakistan, for last 15 to 20 years, has faced immense terrorism of all forms across the country. Despite Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, Pakistan has not been able to comprehensively deal with terrorism. The mentioned law not only includes provisions for punishments to terrorists, but also has provisions dealing with terrorism at large in Pakistan. The law relating to anti-terrorism had been cemented further with the enacting Pakistan Protection Act, now expired, widely questioned and criticised for falling short of international human rights standards. The National Action Plan was launched in the wake Peshawar massacre in 2014. Despite all these efforts, conviction rate of terrorists has remained low. The police and other law enforcing agencies and authorities have done their level best to curtail terrorism-related activities in Pakistan, but it is the law of anti-terrorism that has allowed terrorists to get away despite the conviction.
Furthermore, the anti-terrorism law also includes provisions for giving preventive detentions to terrorists, lays down the simplified trial procedure for the speedy disposal of terrorism-related cases, and constitutes a special court for such cases. It also provides provisions in connection with witness protection programmes that comes to court for evidence. The problem with the anti-terrorism law of Pakistan is that it defines ‘terrorism’ very vaguely. The legislators who defined ‘terrorism’ couldn’t comprehend its implications, or I say, deliberately with the mala fide intention of using this very harsh law to suppress political dissent and oppress union movements.
The Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 was enacted to cater terrorism in Pakistan, and to date, a number of amendments had taken place in it. To the contrary, the British legislators were so serious and sure of their doings and consideration in defining terrorism that to do this task effectively, they engaged Baron Carlile of Berriew QC as an independent observer and facilitator for redefining terrorism in 2007. The amendments that have been made in the anti-terrorism law of Pakistan have redefined terrorism, but the idea and legal line are taken from the British definition of terrorism with certain alterations. The author is very sure, and even it is safe to say that legislators of Pakistan adopted the British law defining terrorism without giving consideration to its implications in the local context of Pakistan.
The author of this piece has noted that courts that were constituted under anti-terrorism law years ago after the enactment of anti-terrorism law have miserably failed to conduct a speedy trial and to convict terrorists. It appears that it is due to the vague definition of terrorism in the mentioned law. Anti-terrorism Act 1997 paragraph 6 defines ‘terrorism and acts of terrorism’ as follows: “Terrorism — (1) In this Act, “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where: (a) the action falls within the meaning of sub-section (2); and (b) the use or threat is designed to coerce and intimidate or overawe the government or the public or a section of the public or community or sect or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society; or (c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a religious, sectarian or ethnic cause”. Moreover, anti-terrorism act 1997 includes the list of offences that are to be considered as acts of terrorism in sub-paragraph (2) however, subject to the specific conditions laid down in sub-sections (b) or (c).
It is said that the previous and incumbent governments of Pakistan, in order to curb political dissent on numerous occasions, used the anti-terrorism law to settle scores. This law, since its promulgation, has been used as a tool to curtail and curb political dissent. The legislators of Pakistan who enacted it years ago defined it so badly rather recklessly that now every political agitation or political dissent cannot be considered as an act of terrorism.
The genuine political dissent and agitation, most of the times, in Pakistan are treated as an act of terrorism which is highly condemnable. It is because of lacunas in the anti-terrorism law of Pakistan. It is not out of place to mention that 99 percent of every violent offence and political agitation in Pakistan perhapsare considered as acts of terrorism. It is a serious problem that has enabled the government to misuse the legislation to the extent that even routine delinquencies are registered under this law which defines terrorism and acts of terrorism vaguely. To cement this argument, an example of this can be seen from an incident in Lahore where a jilted lover threatening to commit suicide with a firearm some years ago was booked under the anti-terrorism law. Moreover, legitimate protests of students in Islamabad, wherein public transport was destroyed, and public property was damaged were booked this law. It is safe to say that routine misdemeanours are registered under this law, which shows that this legislation is used as a tool to curtail genuine political dissent and disobedience.
In the very end, it is submitted that this legislation, since its promulgation, has been used to curb political dissent, and the legislators miserably failed to understand nature and form of terrorism that Pakistan faced. A number of amendments have been taken placed into this legislation but the legislators couldn’t manage to amend the acts of terrorism and terrorism at large. The legislation in question vaguely defined terrorism because of which convictions of terrorists is very low and courts are not able to conduct a speedy trial and actually convict terrorists. It is, therefore, a need of time to reconsider the anti-terrorism law in the parliament fora narrow and precise definition of terrorism so that it actually addresses the issue in Pakistan. The current definition of terrorism has been taken from the British anti-terrorism law, which should be transformed into the local context.


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