Blood and Body Parts: Confusion in Pakistan’s War on Terror. | by Fatima Mustafa

“as Pakistanis repeatedly mourn their dead, it is the same unanswered questions that have, time and again, haunted Pakistan over the last decade about the nature and causes of terrorism that continue to resurface”

State Emblem of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Under which is written in Urdu, the motto Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Urdu. It reads: "Faith, Unity, Discipline".
State Emblem of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Under which is written in Urdu, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s motto. It reads: “Faith, Unity, Discipline”.

Terror strikes Pakistan once again. On Sunday the 15th of March suicide attacks on two of Lahore’s churches killed 15 people and injured 70 others. Pakistanis are left grappling, once more, with the painful realization that something needs to change. That terrorism has cost the country too much; and that too much is at stake in ‘the war on terror’.

As it unfolds in the news, by now the story has become a little too familiar for many Pakistanis. The explosion; the blood; body parts and broken families mourning the loss of loved ones. Government officials promising monetary compensation for victims, and a beleaguered minority yet again under attack.

It is clear, however, that despite the devastating effects of terrorism to the nation itself, Pakistan continues to lack a well-formulated counter-terrorism strategy.

Following Sunday’s attack, Pakistani Christians took to the streets to protest in large numbers – with up to 4000 people protesting in Lahore. Slogans demanding an end to terrorism rang out with some activists chanting “we are all one”; a poignant reminder that Pakistan’s Christian community is as much a part of the country as its Muslim majority. A reminder that it is their nationality and not their religion that affords them the equal protection of the laws of the state. They are Pakistani and so Pakistan belongs as much to them as it does to any other.

Despite the public discussions,  debates, and protests that surround the horrific attack, it is evident that Pakistan lacks a clear direction in its fight against terrorism. The real tragedy for Pakistan is that even after the large number of suicide attacks over the last decade, the country still stands deeply divided on issues of national security. Conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan on various aspects of national security. On who is responsible for the rise of militancy in Pakistan, the most popular contenders in answer are India and the United States. And on what needs to be done about it, widely varying suggestions have been posed, from a military operation to closing down religious seminaries to peace talks and negotiations. It is clear, however, that despite the devastating effects of terrorism to the nation itself, Pakistan continues to lack a well-formulated counter-terrorism strategy.

It is more than a shame; for as Pakistanis repeatedly mourn their dead, it is the same unanswered questions that have, time and again, haunted Pakistan over the last decade about the nature and causes of terrorism that continue to resurface: who is to blame? And how can they be brought to justice?

more than 8000 Pakistanis are currently on death row including those charged for non-terrorism related crimes.

In fact, in recent years, the closest Pakistan has come to a consensus on national security issues was in the aftermath of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country’s history. In 2014, the attack on the Peshawar School left 148 people dead, including 132 children. In a country where suicide attacks occur with depressing frequency, it took the senseless deaths of 132 children to jolt Pakistanis out of their mixture of resignation, fear, and complacency; and for many, an unwillingness to condemn terrorism.

If it is possible to fathom a constructive outcome out of a meaningless destruction, it is that the attacks on Peshawar School pushed many Pakistanis towards what represented a consensus on the need to take action against terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan.

The government, under pressure from a grieving and angry public that demanded action, decided in December 2014 to lift the country’s then standing moratorium on the death penalty to be used only for special cases pertaining to terrorism. The government’s decision also gave military courts jurisdiction to deal with terrorism-related cases.

In describing Pakistan’s decision to reinstate the death penalty, Fatima Bhutto aptly observes, “There was no moment of reflection, no introspection, only a knee-jerk call for vengeance. In Pakistan, blood will always have blood”.

While satisfying the public’s desire for strong action in the face of the brutal attack in Peshawar, such policies unfortunately represent a misplaced belief that hasty and, often, ill-conceived punishments (and what may perhaps be better termed vengeance) can deter terrorism. Indeed, quite apart from anything else, the possibilities for the misuse of such broad laws has been readily apparent. More recently, the government has gone a step further and lifted the moratorium on the death penalty to apply to all cases where such punishment may be deemed appropriate by the courts. Since lifting the moratorium, 48 people have been hanged in Pakistan.

To date, no proof has been presented by the government to establish the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring terrorism. In fact, as pointed out by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, more than 8000 Pakistanis are currently on death row including those charged for non-terrorism related crimes.

Activists argue that with Pakistan’s weak judicial system, the apparent dearth of well-trained legal counsel, and accusations of police torture in high numbers, too much space is left open for legal misjudgment and error. This leaves open very high possibilities for the miscarriage of justice in all too many cases. Some analysts of Pakistan’s death penalty laws have even argued that, in some cases, judges have handed down the death penalty simply as a way to push back against the accusation that Pakistan’s judicial system is soft on terrorists.

In describing Pakistan’s decision to reinstate the death penalty, Fatima Bhutto aptly observes, “There was no moment of reflection, no introspection, only a knee-jerk call for vengeance. In Pakistan, blood will always have blood”. Indeed, Pakistan’s decision to reinstate the death penalty reflected a blood-lusting and not a well-thought through or coherent counter-terrorism strategy. As to an actual strategy, the country is still bereft.

The situation is not helped by the fact that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, enacted under the government of Nawaz Sharif to tackle rising violence in Pakistan, provides a rather broad definition of terrorism. At one point, the Act states that “a person is said to commit a terrorist act if he…commits a scheduled offence, the effect of which will be, or be likely to be, to strike terror, or create a sense of fear and insecurity in the people, or any section of the people, or to adversely affect harmony among different sections of the people.”

The vague and broad parameters of the 1997 Act not only leaves the criteria for the death penalty far too open, but it further makes the solution to the actual problem of terrorism even more difficult than it inherently is.

A reasonable judicial interpretation could hold that the Act’s definition applies to pretty much every kind of criminal act, since pick-pocketing may very well be seen to create fear and disharmony among some section of society. More significant, however, is that the Act gives little guidance where the crime is of a more serious nature but nevertheless could not be deemed terrorism on any common sense view. For the purposes of operating a legal system which is both to be at the centre of providing everyday justice and of tackling the terrorist scourge, this is damning.

The vague and broad parameters of the 1997 Act not only leaves the criteria for the death penalty far too open, but it further makes the solution to the actual problem of terrorism even more difficult than it inherently is.

The vagueness of the 1997 Act’s definition of terrorism reflects a fundamental confusion about what terrorism actually is within Pakistani society itself, who the culprits are, and how they should be prosecuted. The prevailing lack of trust in the institutions of justice, combined with a growing public thirst for blood in the face of rising violence, manifests itself in grotesque ways.

It is as a consequence that known murderers … are greeted with rose petals. On the other hand, mob violence determines the fate of others whose guilt the legal system has not been given a chance to consider.

After the recent attack on Lahore’s churches, enraged bystanders who witnessed the suicide attack later lynched two people accused of being militants and set their bodies on fire. One of the men was forcibly taken from police custody by the crowd, which had decided to take the law into its own hands. They must have reasoned that mob rule had at least a swiftness to recommend it, which is more than could be said for a slow and inept judicial system. Recent news reports have confirmed that the two men lynched were actually innocent bystanders.

At no level, then, is the situation in Pakistan not one in which meaningless violence begets yet more meaningless violence, whether at the unofficial level of ordinary members of society or by the law. Death, blood and violence have now come to pervade the Pakistani social and political landscape.

Only when Pakistan is able to coherently and strategically confront terrorism within the official and regularised structure of a solid legal system can the problem of violence finally begin to be addressed

As the extent of retributive violence has increased in the wake of terrorist attacks, the line between the legal and illegal, and between justice and vengeance has become increasingly blurred. It is as a consequence that known murderers such as Mumtaz Qadri (who killed the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, for the latter’s opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws, which he perceived were enabling the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan) are greeted with rose petals. On the other hand, mob violence determines the fate of others whose guilt the legal system has not been given a chance to consider.

These upended dynamics threaten to severely erode what is left of the rule of law in Pakistan; not just because of the attacks by terrorist militants but also because of the quest for vengeance by the public and the legal system. So that challenges to the rule of law come from both terrorists and, in some cases, from ordinary civilians. A peaceful existence is left unavailable to many in their own country, as all sides deal in blood and violence.

Only when Pakistan is able to coherently and strategically confront terrorism within the official and regularised structure of a solid legal system can the problem of violence finally begin to be addressed. It is ironic that one of the reasons why the Taliban were initially able to gain some level of support in Pakistan’s tribal areas was precisely because of the state’s weak judicial system and the tribal population’s disillusionment with state institutions.

The solution, then, cannot be to further weaken and erode the rule of law and due process, by giving way to vengeance over justice. Instead, Pakistan needs to strengthen its judicial institutions, reinforce the rule of law, ensure due process and hold accountable those who would take the law into their own hands. Without such progress, the future for Pakistan looks bleak. Without such legal reinforcement, the past with its bombings and its lack of justice and its gross loss of life will be destined to repeat itself many times over.

Fatima Mustafa is a Pakistani national. She has previously worked as a Carnegie Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC. She has written for Foreign Policy’s AfPak blog. She is currently a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Boston University. Her dissertation focuses on the problems of state-building in Pakistan.

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