LAHORE, July 02: Pakistan’s preference for dealing with individuals suspected of terrorist and sectarian offences outside the domain of regular criminal law is leading to violation of their human rights.
This is the key finding in a new report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Entitled ‘Terrorist unless proven otherwise’, which has now been released to the public. The report peruses laws and extra-legal practices by government agencies in fighting terrorism and sectarian violence in the country. It tracks a string of ‘special’ laws introduced in Pakistan and concludes that in the last 32 years every time the government has been dissatisfied with the pace or outcome of prosecution of terrorist / sectarian offences, it has invariably dealt with them outside the regular criminal law regime by introducing ‘special’ laws or included new offences in existing ‘special’ laws.
The report explains how anyone accused of such offences under these ‘special’ laws is deprived of many universal human rights guarantees taken for granted in Pakistan’s criminal legal system.
It says that the latest ‘special’ legal instrument in a long line, the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), falls foul of international human rights laws and national constitutional guarantees on many counts.
These include presumption of guilt of the accused, an adequate defence of the accused being compromised on account of undue haste in trial (within seven days) and on appeal (seven days), allowing extra-judicial confessions, and trial in absence of the accused. According to the report, ATA also infringes numerous juvenile rights and is in express violation of Pakistan’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. HRCP has evaluated the outcome of cases under ATA and finds that despite the ‘special’ provisions of the law, justice is often neither speedy nor effective. It found faulty convictions based on patchy evidence and frequent overturning of trial courts’ verdicts on appeal.
The HRCP report also covers practices such as detention under preventive laws, ‘enforced’ disappearances within and outside the ambit of the so-called war on terror, unlawful surrender of individuals to other countries, and complicity in torture and refoulement.
HRCP says that existing laws and practices effectively sentence the accused first and deliver the verdict afterwards. The HRCP report acknowledges that governments have a legitimate interest in prosecuting those charged with any criminal act. But such actions must be legal and must not come at the expense of individual’s rights.