'Terrorism' too widely defined in Anti Terrorism Act, says SC; recommends Parliament bring changes

October 30, 2019

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The 59-page judgment was authored by Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa. — Photo courtesy Supreme Court/File
The 59-page judgment was authored by Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa. — Photo courtesy Supreme Court/File

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a judgment reviewing the meaning and scope of the term 'terrorism' as defined in the Anti Terrorism Act, 1997 and recommended that Parliament bring changes to the current understanding of the term, which is "too wide".

The 59-page judgment was authored by Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa.

The court in its judgment observed that the matter had been "a subject of controversy" for some time and that "different honourable benches of varying strength deciding different cases have [...] understood and interpreted the said term differently".

"It is in this backdrop that the present larger bench has been constituted so as to put an end to that controversy," read the judgment.

According to the judgment, the term 'terrorism' can be applied to the use of force, under an organised plan, for the realisation of religious, ideological or political goals.

It can also be applied when, under the plan, terror is struck in the hearts of people and damage dealt to lives and property.

The offence of terrorism is also committed when under an organised plan, religious sectarianism is spread in society.

Attacking journalists, the business community, the public, and the social sector under an organised plan also falls within the definition of terrorism. Similarly, an attack on law enforcement agencies and security forces is also terrorism, according to the judgment.

Employing an organised plan to cause damage to government property and to commit theft and robbery under such a plan are also acts of terrorism.

The judgment also outlined what offences cannot be viewed as terrorism.

The court clearly distinguished in its judgment that acts of violence, such as setting things on fire and extortion, committed under a personal vendetta arising out of enmity or hostility are not 'terrorism'.

Personal enmity as a result of contempt for a person's religion is not terrorism.

A person's involvement in an act of violence owing to hostility or personal enmity against the police, army or government employees does not fall within the scope of terrorism, ruled the court.

The Supreme Court clarified that "any action constituting an offence, howsoever grave, shocking, brutal, gruesome or horrifying, does not qualify to be termed as terrorism if it is not committed with the design or purpose specified or mentioned in clauses (b) or (c) of subsection (1) of section 6 of the said Act".

"It is further clarified that the actions specified in subsection (2) of section 6 of that Act do not qualify to be labeled or characterised as terrorism if such actions are taken in furtherance of personal enmity or private vendetta," said the court in its judgment.

It also observed that the definition of terrorism at present, as defined in the Act, is "too wide and the same includes so many actions, designs and purposes which have no nexus with the generally recognised concept of what terrorism is".

"Apart from that including some other heinous offences in the Preamble and the Third Schedule to that Act for trial of such offences by an Anti Terrorism Court when such other offences do not qualify to be included in the definition of terrorism puts an extra and unnecessary burden on such courts and causes delay in trial of actual cases of terrorism," said the court judgment.

The court recommended that the Parliament consider substituting the current definition with "a more succinct" one bringing it "in line with the international perspectives of that offence and focusing on violent activities aimed at achieving political, ideological or religious objectives".

"We further recommend that the Parliament may also consider suitably amending the preamble to the Act and removing all those offences from the Third Schedule to the Act which offences have no nexus with the offence of terrorism," said the judgment.