Quelling terrorism

The Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill 2010 was tabled in the Senate by Interior Minister Rehman Malik to amend the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. The proposed bill aims at tightening the noose around terrorists in view of the terror wave that has gripped the country in recent years. The Ordinance had lapsed last month due to the government’s negligence. Fortunately, our leaders have realised the urgency of the issue and have tabled the bill instead. The amended bill, if passed, will empower the government to detain suspects charged with terrorism to be kept in preventive detention for 90 days and this detention will not be challengeable in any court; anyone possessing an explosive substance could be arrested; illegal FM stations being used for hatemongering would be seized; members of banned terrorist outfits would not be allowed to carry on their activities under some other banner, and not be able to obtain passports or travel abroad; arms licences that had been issued to terror groups would be cancelled; bail would be denied to terror suspects, among other things.

All these are good steps but there are certain lacunae in the proposed bill, which should be looked at by the standing committee that will scrutinise the draft. Under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, 1960, Section 3 (MPO-3), a person can be detained for 90 days and the period can be extended at least twice if he/she is suspected of acting in a manner that poses a threat to public safety. How is the new clause of detaining someone for 90 days in the proposed bill different from MPO-3? Do we need two co-existing laws for preventive detention? Another thing that this bill proposes is that the suspect would be produced before an anti-terrorist court in-camera within 24 hours (instead of a magistrate under normal procedures). Also, a confessional statement before a district police officer (DPO) will be admissible as evidence. Can a ‘confessional’ statement be relied upon when we know of the torture culture that prevails in our police set up? The terrorists are most certainly a species apart and not worthy of any mercy, but some innocents can also be roped in on terror charges and left to the tender mercies of our police. Adequate legal safeguards must be provided so that there is no danger of mistreatment of innocents (or even the guilty for that matter). To ensure this, it is necessary that the arrested person should have immediate and continuing access to a defence lawyer.

On another note, Mr Rehman Malik has lumped FATA and Balochistan together vis-à-vis terrorism, which is questionable. The terrorists in FATA are those who were nurtured by the state without realising that when the state raises private militias, trains and arms them, they will work in the state’s favour so long as its interests and theirs converge. Once these interests diverge, they have the capacity to challenge the writ of the state. What is happening these days is an example of this trajectory. In Balochistan, on the other hand, the state’s policies for the last six decades have alienated the Baloch. The state has always used deception and force to quell the nationalist sentiment in the province, which never worked before and is unlikely to work in future either. The recent spate of targeted killings in Balochistan of moderate nationalist leaders has led to the suspicion that the security agencies are behind them. If the state takes an extreme position, more and more people will join the separatists. Mr Malik once again said that he provided evidence to Indian home minister whereas Indian Foreign Minister Krishna denied this in very strong words just this month. Blaming everything that goes wrong on a ‘foreign hand’ is the oldest trick in the book. It is hoped that the Baloch and other members of the Senate would use their wisdom to educate the House on the actual situation in Balochistan. There is a difference between nationalist insurgency and terrorism. Mr Malik, kindly do not make confusion worse confounded by lumping them together.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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