The Usual Suspects

Eight weeks after the launching of the much-publicized crackdown against Islamic extremists, the Pakistani military government is in a quandary over how to proceed against thousands of workers of the now-banned religious groups rounded up in the nationwide swoop, especially in the absence of legally justifiable evidence that could implicate them as terrorists in a court of law.

It now seems to be looking for ways to off-load this "extra luggage" as it gears up to hold the general polls later this year. Lt. Gen (retired) Moinuddin Haider, the powerful home minister of the military regime, announced his general amnesty plan for the arrested terrorists on March 7 providing the required face-saving for the government. The amnesty offer came a day after a high court lambasted the government for making the arrests without fulfilling legal requirements and adequate evidence.

"The government will not take any action against those activists of the banned groups, who are arrested but had no criminal record," Haider announced on a talk show broadcast by state-run radio last week.

The only condition that these activists will have to fulfill to secure their release will be to give a written undertaking to the government that they will not be participating in any future activity of their groups or parties, most of which have already been banned. "Many of the arrested people have already expressed their willingness to disassociate themselves from their parties," commented Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, who heads the National Crises Management Cell at the country's home ministry.

According to one official at the home ministry, as many as 30 to 40 percent of more than 2,000 arrested "terrorists" may soon see the world outside their jails after availing the amnesty offer. They all were rounded up following the nationwide address of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on Jan 12, wherein he had announced tough measures to fight extremism in the country. Most of the arrested workers, however, were the victims of circumstances with no past record of involvement in any crime or terrorist activity. Their only fault was that they were members of religious groups that were very legal before Musharraf's address.

In his address, Musharraf announced the banning of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-i-Mohammad -- the groups accused by India for the attack on its parliament in December last year and also included in the American list of terrorist groups. He also outlawed two sectarian parties -- Sipaha-i-Sahaba Pakistan (Force for the Defense of the Friends of Prophet Mohammad) and Shi'ite Tehrik Jaferia Pakistan. Also under the government's ban was the Jihadi party that had sent more than 15,000 people to fight along the Taliban after the U.S.-led coalition attacked Afghanistan on Oct 7 last year.

The general amnesty plan has followed the military government's failed efforts to establish special civilian-military courts for the speedy trial of the arrested thousands. However, the plan met tough resistance even from sections of society that had supported its crackdown against extremism. Particularly critical of the government's plan were lawyers, who said they would boycott the military courts, calling them indefensible. They said that such courts would undermine all norms of justice and the judiciary itself.

"The council is of the considered view that such anti-terrorism courts will be military courts for all intent and purposes and this would be unconstitutional," said the Pakistan Bar Council, an apex body of legal practitioners in Pakistan.

The lawyers demonstrated their disgust over the amendments by staging strikes all over the country and boycotting the existing civilian anti-terrorism courts that were formed during the Nawaz Sharif government. "This is an expression of a total lack of confidence in the learning, integrity and competence of the judiciary of this country," the PBC said in a resolution.

The lawyers are particularly annoyed that the military government is equating military officers with the judicial officers, negating the concept of an independent judiciary and trichotomy of powers in a federal system. "There are several other areas in the amended law that are a cause of serious concern," observed Rashid Razvi, a member of the PBC's Human Rights Committee.

He referred to the clause that empowers federal and provincial governments to authorize officers from police or any other investigation agency to conduct investigations into crimes related to terrorism. "By this scheme, the military government is seeking to displace civilian authority in investigations into crimes as well. The intelligence agencies are currently being authorized by law to implicate and investigate civilians. The new scheme will in fact extend the provisions of the Army Act to civilians," he said.

A lawyers' association was also able to win a stay order against the induction of military officers in the judicial system. But what came as a blow to the government's crackdown against extremism was an observation by a higher court, which said that the law enforcers "blindly" arrested the workers of religious parties.

"What sort of threat [had] the government felt … that it blindly arrested the workers by using one order of arrest?" asked Justice Ma Shahid Siddiqui of the Lahore High Court as he heard on March 6 various petitions filed by the relatives of the religious workers challenging their arrests. The judge also criticized the government for arresting thousands of people on what he called "substandard" investigations.

The observation was indeed an embarrassment for the government, which was rejoicing over its successful swoop against Islamic extremists and winning praise, particularly from its supporters in the western governments. Although its amnesty offer to the arrested people has been generally welcomed by people as a right step that would mainstream these people, fears are being expressed within the government circles that they may go back to their old ways.

Many officials say that the government will have no way to monitor the activities of the people who would be availing general amnesty. They say that the banning of the groups, most of which were not registered with the government in the first place, does not mean they have stopped functioning. "The outlawed groups with their offices closed may have been working covertly...but who knows," said one official.

The upsurge in the sectarian violence in various parts of the country -- including the recent gunning down of 10 worshippers in a mosque near the Pakistani capital - are reflective of the fact that the war against terrorism is far from being won. The latest religious killings only show that the ban of groups thought to be involved in sectarian terrorism has not been effective, or there may be new players in the fray!

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