DESPITE the lapse of an inordinate amount of time, the back and forth between the security apparatus and the court system over illegal detention centres in the northwest refuses to reach a resolution. In its latest iteration, on Thursday, the Peshawar High Court refused to accept the defence ministry’s claim that 177 missing persons were not in the custody of the security agencies and said that it had credible information that the agencies had been maintaining such detention centres in areas including the Mohmand, Orakzai and Kurram agencies. The deputy attorney general argued that relatives of missing persons filed cases before the courts but in actuality these men were fighting against the security forces; while acknowledging this possibility, the bench nevertheless expressed its resolve to see an end to the controversy.

There are two broad dimensions to this issue. First, it is true that the security apparatus has a tough task on its hands to successfully prove the guilt of people detained in militancy-hit areas, given challenges that include the lack of independent witnesses and evidence and the militants’ fear-inducing tactics. Nevertheless, due process must be followed. If the law-enforcement apparatus is also guilty of resorting to illegal means, just as the militants do, this will undermine its legitimacy and the goodwill offered to it in its capacity of representing the state. Second, leading on from this is the fact that illegal means to combat militancy and extremism can have the counterproductive effect of increasing radicalisation. As an example, take the town of Ghalanai in Mohmand Agency, where security and Levies personnel conducted search operations against militants last September: the townspeople complained that they felt harassed, saying that they were loyal to Pakistan. Innocent until proven guilty is a basic tenet of the law. As the courts have emphasised time and again, resorting to illegal means to combat militancy and extremism will only exacerbate the problems. It is time the security apparatus internalised this.

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