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Trials in anti-terror courts: delay violates law

Updated August 12, 2013

ISLAMABAD, Aug 11: Contrary to the timeframe made mandatory under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 for concluding a trial in “seven working days”, not a single Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) has ever concluded a terrorism case within a week. Instead, terrorism cases tend to linger on for months in the courts.

In 14 ATCs of Punjab, about 1,100 cases are pending, in Rawalpindi 51 cases and in Islamabad 15 cases. Included are some of the most high-profile terrorism cases, which have been pending for the past several years.

This delay at the prosecutors’ end helps explain why the country has yet to tackle the menace of terrorism effectively.

The oldest case pending in the Rawalpindi’s ATCs is the one about the attack on former president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf. Registered by the Civil Lines police in December 2003, the trial has been pending in the ATC-I since then.

A parallel trial was conducted by the military court in 2004 in which 12 people, mostly serving soldiers, were convicted. The ATC is trying civilians — Rana Mohammad Faqir and Jamshed Raza — for their alleged abetment in the attack.

Out of the 165 witnesses only 56 have been examined so far by the court. Rana Faqir, 65, whose son Rana Naveed was convicted by the military court, is detained at the Adiyala jail since 2005 awaiting his trial. Faqir is accused of having planned the attack on the convoy of Gen Musharraf. The accused is said to have parked his explosives-laden vehicle in front of Jinnah Park in Rawalpindi but it did not explode when the president’s convoy passed by it.

Law enforcement agencies arrested Faqir two years after the incident. The second high-profile case moving at a snail’s pace is the murder case of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which has been pending in the Rawalpindi ATC since 2008.

Former president Musharraf is one of the accused in the case and other accused include the leadership of the banned outfit Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and two senior police officials.

Only 16 witnesses, out of over 100 witnesses, have been cross-examined so far in the case.

The third case which is not moving fast is the Mumbai attack case in which 166 people were killed in the Indian city of Mumbai. Initially being heard by the ATC of Rawalpindi (in 2009) the case was recently shifted to the newly established ATC of Islamabad.

Seven Pakistani suspects being tried in the case include the alleged mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, Abdul Wajid, Mazhar Iqbal, Hammad Amin Sadiq, Shahid Jameel Riaz, Jamil Ahmed and Younas Anjum. In this case too, a large number of witnesses are yet to be heard by the court.

According to sub-section 7 of section 19 of the ATA 1997 which defines the procedure and power of the Anti-Terrorism Court “the court shall proceed with the trial on a daily basis and decide the case within seven working days”.

The law further says that if the court does not meet this deadline, an application may be made to the administrative judge of the high court concerned to pass the “appropriate directions” to ensure “expeditious disposal of the case to meet the end of justice”.

Sub-section 8 of section 19 adds that the ATC “shall not adjourn any trial for any purpose unless such adjournment is in its opinion necessary in the interest of justice and no adjournment shall in any case be granted for more than two working days”.

Contrary to this, cases are adjourned for weeks and months on end. In both the Bhutto murder and the Mumbai attack cases, hearings were adjourned more than 50 times on requests of the counsel.

In fact, on Jan 16, 2012, Justice Manzoor Malik of the Lahore High Court, the administrative judge of the Anti-Terrorism Courts of Punjab, had issued directions to all ATCs across Punjab for day-to-day proceedings of cases filed before June 2012. After his directions, cases were heard on a daily basis — but after a short period, the routine of lethargy returned and so did adjournments.

A special public prosecutor of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told Dawn that defence counsel were largely responsible for the delays.

He claimed that terrorist outfits developed links with certain lawyers and then tried to influence witnesses, investigation officers and even judges.

“Terrorists closely monitor proceedings and threaten witnesses and judges. This also helps ensure adjournments.”

Prosecutor General of Punjab Sadaqat Ali Khan admitted that terrorism cases were delayed but claimed that the prosecution never caused delays.

However, this is not to say that the prosecution is never to blame. The Benazir case is a good example of the incompetence of the prosecution that too causes delays.

In the case, police submitted the first interim challan in the ATC of Rawalpindi on Feb 29, 2008, after detaining Aitzaz Shah and Sher Zaman two months after the assassination of Ms Bhutto in Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh on Dec 27, 2007.

After that investigations were carried out more than once by different joint investigation teams and the case kept getting delayed. By now, the prosecution has submitted seven challans in the court. The first challan was submitted on May 25, 2010, and the last one on June 25 this year. Each time a challan is submitted, it may contain a new accused which means the case may have to be heard from the beginning.