RAWALPINDI, Dec 9: A worried Punjab government has decided to hold a monthly review of the performance of all prosecutors attached with anti-terrorism courts (ATCs) following a revelation that an extraordinarily high number of the accused in terrorism and kidnapping for ransom cases have been acquitted.
The 14 ATCs of Punjab have acquitted people facing terrorism charges in 370 cases over the past 11 months.
Acquittals in 255 cases were put down to backtracking by witnesses on statements they had earlier recorded before investigation officers.
In the remaining cases, the acquittals were due to lack of evidence or poor investigation.According to data compiled by the Punjab prosecution department, in January there were 346 cases pending in ATCs across the province.
During the year, 669 new cases were instituted. They were related to bomb blasts, acts of terrorism, kidnappings for ransom and possession of explosives.
Of the 1,015 cases, the courts decided 506. While 370 led to acquittals, there were convictions in 136 cases.
Punjab Prosecutor General Sadaqat Ali Khan told Dawn that the decision to review the performance every month of all prosecutors deployed in the ATCs had been taken because of the higher rate of acquittal.
He said most of the acquittals had taken place because of witnesses having backtracked on their statements. He said the witnesses tended to deny their earlier statements under fear of being harmed by those they were testifying against.
Islamabad police’s Special Prosecutor Syed Mohammad Tayyab said the “witnesses do so under fear, because a compromise is reached or because of pressure from relatives”.
He said a compromise was not allowed in cases of kidnapping for ransom. In such situations the aggrieved party simply backtracked on its statement instead of withdrawing the complaint, leaving the court with no option other than to acquit the accused.
In terrorism cases, however, mostly fear forces witnesses to backtrack.
The larger problem, experts say, is absence of investigative and forensics skills and equipment, due to which prosecution in most cases is based on testimonies. A shortage of funds has not been helping matters either.
“We have decided to record the witnesses’ statements under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). Thus the statements will be recorded under oath by a magistrate.
“It will not be possible for a witness to retract his statement recorded under this section and in such a case the magistrate can testify to the statement,” an official said.
“We have also planned joint training of prosecutors with officers of investigation agencies.
“The prosecutors will be trained to use the forensic evidence to prepare cases. This will reduce reliance on eyewitness accounts,” he was confident.
FAISAL SHAHZAD’S AIDES: Those acquitted this year included four people charged with helping Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a bomb in New York’s Times Square in May 2010.
An ATC in Rawalpindi acquitted them in June. The four had been arrested in the wake of the attack which failed when the explosives in Faisal Shahzad’s vehicle failed to detonate. He pleaded guilty and admitted to having got training from Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas.
He was sentenced to life in prison in the United States.
LAHORE GPO ATTACK: The ATC in Lahore also acquitted an accused, Shahzad, in the Jan 2008 General Post Office Chowk suicide attack case on Wednesday after police failed to present concrete evidence against him.
The attack had had left 22 people dead, 19 police officials among them.
Shahzad, along with two others, was accused of planning the attack and helping the bomber.
UNWFP, NAVAL COMPLEX ATTACKS: An ATC in Rawalpindi acquitted in September all the three accused in two high-profile terrorist cases of the federal capital. The prosecution failed to prove its case against Noor Jehan, Rehmat Gul and Jamshed Khan in the United Nations World Food Program and the Naval Headquarters terrorist attack cases.
They had been arrested by police in March 2010 for allegedly having planned attacks on the naval complex and the UN office in F-8 sector. The UN office was struck in Oct 2009 and five staffers were killed.
ANJUM AQEEL: In July, a Rawalpindi court acquitted Pakistan Muslim League - N MNA Anjum Aqeel Khan, who was accused of escaping from the custody of police. All the 12 prosecution witnesses had backtracked. The Shalimar police had booked the MNA and his 15 supporters for forcibly freeing him in July last year.