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A case for reforming anti-terror laws?

March 31, 2016


Flaws in the mechanism  allowed several ‘fourth schedulers’ to march into the capital. ─ Photo: Facebook
Flaws in the mechanism allowed several ‘fourth schedulers’ to march into the capital. ─ Photo: Facebook

ISLAMABAD: Flaws in the mechanism that provides for the surveillance of high-risk individuals have allowed several ‘fourth schedulers’ – or individuals whose names are included in the fourth schedule of the Anti Terrorism Act 1997 – to march into the capital unannounced, with little or no clarity on who is responsible for keeping an eye on such violators.

In a press conference on Wednesday night, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan admitted that there may be some shortcomings in the law. But the law’s weaknesses, despite the protestations of demonstrators at D-Chowk, lie not in its framing, but its enforcement mechanisms.

Legal experts and police officers Dawn spoke to agree that expecting an individual who was on the watchlist to volunteer information about his/her own whereabouts was too much to expect.

Police officers, legal experts say lack of procedural definitions make enforcement of ATA fourth schedule problematic

Constitutional lawyer Ahsanuddin Sheikh told Dawn that the fourth schedule of the ATA did not describe the procedure for keeping a check on suspects’ activities.

Under the ATA’s fourth schedule, the government may notify a suspect as proscribed on an ex-parte basis if there are reasonable grounds to believe that he/she is involved in terrorism, has links with a proscribed organisation or is involved in promoting sectarianism.

Suspects are required to execute a bond with one or more sureties for good behaviour to the satisfaction of the relevant district police officer, and are required to seek permission from their respective police station house officer before leaving the limits of that police station.

Under the fourth schedule, a suspect’s movement is restricted and such an individual is not allowed to visit educational institutions, theatres, cinemas, fairs, amusement parks, hotels, clubs and other places of public entertainment. In addition, they are not allowed to proceed to resorts, airports, railway stations, bus stands, telephone exchanges, television and radio stations, public meetings or processions without prior permission.

The act provides that such suspects be monitored through police or any other government agency.

“The ATA defines the parameters for placing someone’s name in the fourth schedule, as well as the process of appeal against such an order and the process for removal of any name from list of suspects,” Mr Sheikh said, adding that the government needed to revise the law to bring it in line with current requirements.

Watching over suspects

According to the Interior Ministry’s official statistics, there are currently around 8,000 people whose names are listed in the ATA’s fourth schedule, across all four provinces. Punjab’s list is the bulkiest with 4,400 suspects listed. However, at least 109 of them are said to be missing from their given addresses.

One such fourth scheduler is Pir Mohammad Afzal Qadri, who was a part of the sit-in at D-Chowk. Moreover, local cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz is also a fourth scheduler, but there have been no significant restrictions on his movement in the city, except when civil society has come out against him.

The cleric has, however, challenged his inclusion in the fourth schedule and the matter is still pending before the Islamabad High Court (IHC).

Criminal law expert Raja Rizwan Abbasi told Dawn that law enforcement agencies seemed happy to enforce this law against “poor suspects”, while the powerful were free to move anywhere, despite being on the watch-list.

“This raises questions about the professionalism and capacity of the police, because it should not be difficult for a national force of 300,000 to monitor the activities of 8,000 people across the country,” he said.

The federal and provincial governments could also involve Rangers as well as plainclothes officials to monitor the activities of the suspects, he said.

“The executive authorities have the resources to keep these suspects under observation, but they can’t due to a lack of will and political influence,” he claimed.

Law enforcement’s limitations

Retired inspector general of police Saleemullah Khan, however, maintained that police did not have the technology or the resources to keep a check on the movement of every suspect. In some countries, such suspects were monitored through a tracking chip, placed on an ankle bracelet that could not be torn or broken, he explained. He also claimed that police did not even have access to suspects’ cell phone data or their locations.

Other police officers Dawn spoke to said that while police could recommend names to district administration for inclusion in the Fourth Schedule of ATA, they could not possibly monitor their activities all the time.

“Once someone’s name is included in the list, they are bond to inform police before leaving the city,” an official said, adding that such requests were referred to the district magistrate, who could either grant or deny permission.

Fourth schedulers are also bound to report their presence to the police station in the jurisdiction of their destination, as well as providing details on the duration of their stay, the name and address of their host or the place where they would be lodging, as well as their travel plans.

In case someone fails to meet these requirements, police can arrest such suspects and book them under the ATA. However, these rules are not followed in common practice, the officer claimed.

Initiating action against such individuals is not an easy task, he said, explaining that such people usually rile up their supporters to pressurise the police whenever legal action is initiated against them.

Due to the lack of a centralised database of fourth schedulers, most policemen in the city can’t even identify a proscribed individual, sources in the department told Dawn.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2016