THIS month has seen some progress towards a more robust legal framework for combating terrorism. The Fair Trial Act was signed into law, the National Counterterrorism Authority Bill was approved by the cabinet and tabled in the National Assembly, and the latter passed an amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act that focused on terrorism financing in response to international pressure. Now the lower house is debating a more extensive amendment to the ATA. Like the other pieces of legislation, though, this one represents some welcome progress but also long delays, complicated human rights issues and lingering gaps in the legal framework.
The first thing to note about it is that it is being debated at all; much-needed changes to the ATA have been stuck in parliamentary limbo for years now, and the introduction of this second amendment raises some hopes that recent incidents of terrorism and the country’s response to them have resulted in renewed focus on that key law. Second, the amendment proposes some changes that should significantly increase the authorities’ ability to prevent acts of terrorism before they occur. Significantly, organisations that are simply renamed after being banned but continue to be involved in similar activities — a common and powerful tactic in Pakistan — would also be banned. Other changes include, for example, allowing the government to order up to 90 days of preventive detention that cannot be challenged in court, and disallowing activists of banned organisations who continue their activities from travelling, borrowing money from banks or bearing even licensed arms.
But some of the most important gaps still remain unaddressed. One of these, for example, is lack of protection for judges and witnesses, an obvious hurdle in the way of prosecuting terrorists. There is also the problem of how the ATA defines terrorists and terrorist acts; the current broad definition has meant that only a tiny fraction of cases disposed of by anti-terrorism courts have to do with terrorism as most Pakistanis would understand it. Then there are the human rights issues. The amendment allows, for example, the federal government to authorise any person to intercept calls and messages or trace calls “in the interest of national security”. The 90-day preventive detention clause could be misused, and another says that a person accused under the ATA in an area in which the armed or civil armed forces have been deployed will be presumed guilty unless proven otherwise. These are just a couple of examples; amendments to the ATA are long overdue, but this is an extensive and detailed piece of legislation that needs close scrutiny from experts on both militancy and human rights before it is signed into law.