Anti-Terrorism Laws and Their Wholesale Use
According to a Supreme Court judgment in 2017, the fact that ordinary crime can have a devastating, gruesome and heart-rending effect on human beings should not by itself be reason enough to bring the crime within the fold of terrorism or attract the provisions of sections 6 and 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act.
The excessive use of anti-terrorism laws in Pakistan, in an attempt to incriminate individuals for a range of crimes, should not be conveniently ignored. In a society where crimes are increasing exponentially, the writ of the government cannot be feigned through the employment of anti-terrorism charges over every other citizen alleged of a serious crime. The readily available anti-terrorism laws for almost all serious offences give the police wide space to exploit citizens at the detriment of liberty and society’s progress.
Section 6 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 contains a list of actions which may be classified as acts of terrorism, while Section 7 lays out punishment for the same. The wide array of offences also includes crimes such as ransom for money which is usually classified separately in crime statistics all over the world, having a very different nature from any likely act of terrorism.
This broad range of offences apparently seems to be providing us with a sense of security, in a way that the state wants to protect citizens through the application of these strict anti-terrorism laws against culprits, but then what is wrong with this wholesale use of terrorism charges in Pakistan?
It points to a trend where not only our law enforcement agencies are failing in their strength to deal with increasing crimes, other than those involving terrorism, but where they are also adopting a wrong policy to curb crimes from being noticed by including the element of terrorism in every other crime, thereby desensitizing us from getting troubled by all other crimes which fall short of that threshold.
Apart from the above-mentioned problems, two other dangers are attached to such an issue: the misuse of these laws and the lack of categorised legislation based on our better understanding of different natures of crimes.
In 2018, students, mainly Pukhtoon, at University of the Punjab, had been charged under Section 7 of ATA after being arrested as a result of confrontation among student groups. There are two reasons why the said charge may be disproportionate to the alleged crime, and which may in turn be used as a case-study as to how this law serves as a tool for the government to oppress or harass citizens:
- it is needless to mention that any offence under ATA is non-bailable, and
- the accused does not have the right of an open court hearing.
Reportedly, the police had harassed the students, telling them about the dire consequences of being charged under ATA. And this is just one of the many examples which do not come up to the surface.
The second major issue is the scarcity of well-classified nature of crimes. It reminds us of 18th century two-fold division of crimes in common law: felonies and misdemeanors. Crimes varying in intensity and magnitude had similar punishments as the law was indifferent towards the circumstances of each case. ATA too is being used as a blanket policy of the government to address anti-terrorism with iron hands. This is a major predicament to the development of an advanced and efficient criminal justice system which is not heavily reliant on specific laws for the purposes of conviction. Moreover, it blurs the the fine distinction between the usual conception of an act of terrorism which often involves the use of violence, with or without weapons of a different nature.
One may argue that the presence of military courts for the purpose of conviction of hardcore terrorists is sufficient therefore anti-terrorism courts should do the job of expanding the scope and regime of ATA. However, despite controversies attached to military courts, our criminal justice system needs to be more careful towards this unchecked expansion of anti-terrorism laws, using absence of legislation as an excuse.
Take the example of Punjab in this regard. In 2012, the Punjab government instructed the police and prosecution departments to bring anti-terrorism laws in force against the alleged perpetrators of acid attacks. This happened despite the existence of a special law in the form of Acid Control and Crimes Prevention Act 2011. While punishment for acid crimes may arguably be harsher than those under ATA, the distinction is still important for crimes addressed under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) than those which come under ATA. Further, the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) has also advised the government to pass more Bills in this regard to improve the standards of prevention, investigation and prosecution in such cases. However, reportedly, the Acid and Burn Crimes Bill 2014 has still not been passed while the government seems to be relying on other available options i.e. the ATA.
The use of anti-terrorism laws in a bulk of cases stunts the growth of specialized legislation since there is always an ad hoc basis in the form of ATA present before law enforcement agencies to fall back on. Even if special laws exist, the prosecution tends to not inculcate their provisions. Moreover, conviction under anti-terror laws in such cases becomes very difficult, which not only burdens the courts, but also wastes resources of the government at the expense of causing difficulties to the parties involved, including stigmatizing an accused with terrorist connotations.
This is an important area where experts in the field of law need to sit with legislators and policymakers for a more careful use of anti-terror laws. However, it remains up to the legislators to discuss and argue whether each heinous crime has to be put in the category of terrorism or if the scope of such laws needs to be expanded.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.