AT long last, the legal system is moving towards a more pragmatic approach where the functioning of the Anti-Terrorism Courts is concerned. The Supreme Court has declared that under Section 23 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, ATCs can transfer any case that comes before them to ordinary criminal courts, provided they do so after taking cognisance of it. This ruling, the outcome of a petition against a verdict of the Sindh High Court’s Sukkur bench in 2019, restored an earlier ATC order dated Nov 13, 2018, transferring a case before it to an ordinary court.
The ATCs were set up in 1997 to expedite the prosecution of offences perceived as falling within the ambit of ‘terrorism’. Section 7 of the ATA stipulates that these courts must decide cases within seven days after indictment. In practice, however, even high-profile incidents remain pending for years in ATCs. The Nishtar Park bombing in Karachi, for example, took place in 2006; the ATC concerned had not decided the case until mid-2018, when the federal government transferred it to a military court for trial. In early 2019, it emerged there were 3,210 cases pending in the 53 ATCs functioning in Sindh. The main reason for the backlog in all ATCs across the country is that the ATA has defined ‘terrorism’ too broadly; its preamble provides for “the prevention of terrorism, sectarian violence”, but then expands the scope of legislation to include the “speedy trial of heinous offences”. A landmark Supreme Court verdict in October 2019 sought to define terrorism within more exact parameters. While acknowledging that parliament has arrived at a definition close to the international understanding of terrorism as “a species quite distinct from all other usual and private crimes howsoever heinous or gruesomely executed”, it pointed out that ATCs have sometimes not interpreted the ATA correctly. The law, said the verdict, describes terrorism as a “crime with the object and purpose of destabilising society or the government with a view to achieving objectives which are political in the extended sense of the word”. Therefore, it held, rather than the outcome or potential outcome, the motive is key to determining whether an act constitutes terrorism. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Wednesday should further help streamline the ATCs’ working. When cases are wrongfully filed under the ATA — as has also happened in instances of political vendetta — the ATCs themselves can ensure they do not take on an unnecessary burden.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020