Waking to sleep?

December 29, 2014

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT is a wake-up call, they say. A tragedy so awful the mind reels at the thought of it; the soul curdles at the sight of it. We’ve had many such wake-up calls.

We’ve had the Parade Lane mosque massacre, the Karsaz blasts, the Marriot bombing, the recurring apocalypses that the Hazaras have faced, the steady drip-drip of killings so many in number that it becomes impossible to even list them.

We wake, like sleepwalkers jolted into reality by a fall; shocked to find ourselves muddied and bloodied, wondering how we got here when a moment ago we were safe and warm in our beds. As is our wont, we then clean ourselves up and go right back to bed, counting ad hoc measures as if they were sheep until sleep once again consumes us. If we wake, it is only to hit the snooze button.

This time, they say it’s different. Certainly the moratorium on death penalties for terrorism cases has been lifted, to what seems like wide public acclaim. There are of course voices arguing that this is not a solution, especially in a country where the judicial system is deeply flawed. In the long run, even sooner, this will create rather than curb abuses, they say.


The real battle will lie in systemic reform.


On the other side is the refrain that no other punishment can possibly be meted out to unrepentant mass murderers; that incarceration means little when terrorists have shown a capability to operate, recruit and even escape from jail.

The debate will continue, as it should, but the moratorium stands lifted and this is being projected as a sign of a new determination.

Then there arises the next logical question: what’s the point of executing terrorists if the courts are largely unable to convict them to begin with? That the judiciary has been woefully deficient on this count is something even its most stalwart defenders will have to concede.

It’s not just about procedural issues and lacunae in investigation and prosecution. The simple fact is that the state has been unable to provide protection to witnesses and judges, a failing that LeJ head Malik Ishaq, among others, has routinely exploited. He has threatened witnesses and officials alike, and if he sporadically remains behind bars it is due to the ad hoc use of the MPO and by keeping him in judicial remand by embroiling him in new cases. We often hear calls for witness protection programmes and such, but we know they are fruitless. It’s true that a state that can barely protect itself cannot be expected to protect others, but we haven’t even seen it try.

This brings us to military courts, the setting up of which has now been approved (with some reservations) by most political parties. Again, it is the direct result of the collective somnambulism of the state that such a step was needed. It is a glaring example of our crisis of will and imagination that despite years of carnage the needed reforms of the civil judiciary did not take place.

Take for example the chief justice’s directive that anti-terrorism courts will now hold daily hearings; this is according to a provision that is already present in the Anti-Terrorist Act, 1997 and one must ask why it took the murder of children to make it a reality.

One may also ask why only 10-15pc of cases in the ATCs pertain to actual terrorist attacks while the rest are only ‘technically’ terrorism.

Or take the media recommendations put forth by the National Assembly committee. As admitted by PML-N legislator Talal Chaudhry, these are not “anything new” and already exist as laws, albeit unimplemented ones. Perhaps this time it will be different, but not if the level of imagination that can be gauged from the guidelines is indicative of the thought process of our policymakers.

Here we have gems like: “Show positive side like people who don’t commit suicide,” and “always show good news first…and if possible at bedtime too.” If that’s the thinking that will inform the National Action Plan, with its unfortunate acronym of NAP, then that’s cause enough to keep you up at night.

Here one must repeat what others have already detailed far more eloquently, that executions and military courts are stopgaps not solutions.

The real battle will lie in systemic reform that will have to overcome institutional reluctance, incompetence and lethargy. This will not make headlines, will not be done overnight and will only bear fruit in years to come.

That change is possible due to public pressure has been shown by the small successes of the Lal Masjid vigil, where a motivated group of protesters showed more courage than our leadership has. It is this sheer determination that our policy makers have to show, or else our hopes will remain waking dreams, and our nightmares will continue to walk in the daylight.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2014