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A vicious circle

October 19, 2012

WHEN it comes to bringing suspected sectarian terrorists to justice in Pakistan, we seem to be moving in circles. Militants are captured and paraded by the police with much fanfare, locked up — then released due to ‘lack of evidence’. In the meantime, terrorist violence and targeted killings continue with frightening regularity. Hence, the capture of Hafiz Qasim Rasheed, the Sindh chief of a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi faction, announced by the police in Karachi on Wednesday, should be met with some circumspection. The suspect, believed to be involved in over 100 sectarian killings, has been arrested twice before but released on both occasions due to — once again — ‘lack of evidence’. Malik Ishaq, one of the founders of LJ and linked to 43 cases involving 70 murders, has also been either acquitted or granted bail in most cases. The reason? Lack of evidence. A report on Thursday also claimed one of Malala Yousufzai’s attackers was captured by security forces in 2009 but released as no evidence was found against him. There are allegations that sympathisers within the police and other state organs either suppress  evidence against the militants or don’t work hard enough to collect it.

Simply capturing suspected militants and presenting them in front of the media is not enough. For there to be any permanent disruption of terrorist activities the captured men must be tried and punished so that they are not back on the streets soon after their capture. The militant captured in Karachi very clearly told mediapersons he would kill more people if given the chance. While statements like these make headlines, they are not enough to lead to a conviction; as per the law, only a statement recorded in front of a judicial magistrate has legal value. Also, militants often deny earlier confessional statements in court. In many cases witnesses turn hostile for fear of their lives due to intimidation from militants. This can scuttle a strong case and is reflective of the state’s inability to make significant progress on an effective witness protection programme.

For militancy to be countered the justice system needs to deliver. A number of complementary steps should be taken to ensure suspected terrorists are convicted. These include proper investigations carried out by capable, unbiased officials, strong prosecution as well as a protection programme that gives witnesses the assurance that they or their families will not lose their lives for testifying against a terrorist. Protection must also be given to the judges, lawyers and police officers involved in the cases. More than anything else, the will of the state is required to convict and punish terrorists.