ISLAMABAD: The lack of progress on tackling terrorism is evident from the fact that in 2014, the conviction rate in the three ATCs of the twin cities –Rawalpindi and Islamabad – remained low.
In the two ATCs of Rawalpindi, 205 cases were heard but there were convictions in less than ten. However, even this was a success compared to the Islamabad ATC which did not convict a single accused.
The weakness of Pakistan’s prosecution and judicial system is once again in the limelight as political leaders gathered in Peshawar in the wake of the heinous terrorist attack on the army school.
In the hours that followed the news of the attack, more than one politician and analyst spoke forcefully of the need to reform the laws so that terrorists would be held accountable in the courts.
There is no simply one reason to explain why terrorists are rarely convicted by the courts. Be it the flawed investigation, the lack of evidence or the fear of the terrorists, all these reasons lead to those accused of terrorism being freed by the courts.
In 2014, the ATC Rawalpindi acquitted Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) chief Malik Ishaq from three cases of terrorism for want of evidence
Since 2007, over 2,000 alleged terrorists, who have been accused of having been involved in high profile terrorism cases, have been freed by the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) of the country. And if the security agencies are to be believed, a large number of them have rejoined terrorist outfits. Just take 2014.
More importantly, the ATC Rawalpindi acquitted Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) chief Malik Ishaq from three cases of terrorism for want of evidence.
Ishaq was facing three charges under separate FIRs registered under sections 9 and 11 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (which deal with whipping up sectarian hatred) and section 16 of the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO).
The three FIRs were registered by the Attock, Chakwal and Jhelum police in 2012 and 2013.
Ishaq, originally a member of the proscribed Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), broke away to form the LeJ, which was banned by the Pakistan government soon after its inception in the early 1990s.
In February 2014, the United States added Ishaq to its list of most wanted terrorists and put the LeJ on a list of international terrorist organisations.
Ishaq has earlier faced charges of killing more than 100 people, most of them Shia, and was also accused of involvement in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 2009.
In another acquittal, the ATC exonerated the suspects allegedly involved in the killing of officials of Military Intelligence - Major Afaq Ahmed, Hawaldar Mazhar Abbas, Naik Faiz Muhammad, Lance Naik Waqas Ahmed and civilian Afsar who were gathering information on militant hideouts in Pir Chambal mountains.
On November 12, 2011, these officials were killed while on duty at Pir Chambal hills, between Chakwal and Jhelum.
However, none of these acquittals have raised any eyebrows.
The courts traditionally end up releasing the accused – for a number of reasons that vary from a weak case based on poor investigative facilities and skills of the police to the fact that terrorist organisations are able to intimidate the lawyers and judges.
As a result, the list of those freed by the courts is long.
Last year, the ATC acquitted Rana Faqir, who was accused of attacking the convoy of former president retired General Pervez Musharraf in 2001.
Those accused of targeting a bus of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2007 were also released two years ago.
The seven accused who were released in 2012 were facing charges of attacking a 72-seater bus of the ISI parked in front of the Hamza Camp (Ojhari Camp) in Rawalpindi on November 24, 2007. The attack claimed the lives of 32 officials of the ISI.
Those acquitted due to lack of evidence included Dr Niaz Ahmed, Mazharul Haq, Shafiqur Rehman, Syed Abdul Saboor, Syed Abdul Majid, Syed Abdul Basit and Mohammed Amir.
Four years ago in 2010, the ATC acquitted four men who had been accused of planning and abetting a deadly suicide attack on Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20, 2008.
The same year, the courts also acquitted Mohammad Ilyas alias Qari Jamil and Mohammad Rizwan alias Shamsul Haq, who were accused of attacking the Danish embassy, and killing a serving army general, surgeon general Mushtaq Baig.
It is noteworthy that in what was a rare occurrence, the ATC had convicted those accused of planning (and not carrying out) an attack on the Army House in 2008; life imprisonment was awarded to six - Zafar Ali, Intikhab Abbasi, Abid Khan, Mohammad Ishaq, Mohammad Kabeer and Qamar Zaman in 2010.
In the same case, the court declared Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitulllah Mehsud the mastermind of the attack. He was declared an absconder as were his colleagues. The convicted appealed against the sentence which was dismissed by the Lahore High Court (LHC) in 2012.
It is tragic that the special prosecutor in this case, Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, was also gunned down on May 3, 2013 while he was going to the ATC for the hearing of the Benazir Bhutto murder case that he was arguing. Gen Musharraf is an accused in this case.
In most cases, the courts acquit the suspects because the evidence provided by the prosecution is insufficient. For example, the prosecution in Gen Musharraf attack case produced about 100 witnesses to support its case but they were found to be irrelevant during the cross examination.
Likewise, in the case of Surgeon General Mushtaq Baig killing, the prosecution could not produce the car the suspect allegedly used to target the General.
Laeeq Swati, who has represented terrorist suspects in a number of cases, said that the cases are based on “flawed and false investigation”.
Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2014