ISLAMABAD: With the expiry of a key anti-terror law last month, the fate of several high-profile cases, including the assassination of Punjab Home Minister retired Colonel Shuja Khanzada, has become uncertain, as there has been no headway in efforts to give the law a new lease of life.
The Protection of Pakistan Act (PoPA), which was promulgated in July 2014 with a sunset clause of two years, expired on July 15. ‘Special courts’ set up under the law remained non-functional for several months because of a lack of staff and other facilities.
But so far, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government seems undecided over reviving the law, which mainly dealt with terrorism-related offences.
The law ministry had forwarded a summary to the prime minister for the revival of PoPA a couple of months ago, but the prime minister did not have the time to look at it as he was undergoing cardiac treatment at the time.
Defence counsel claims accused being tried under the law will have to be released; prosecutors say offences can still be tried under PPC, ATA
On July 14, the prime minister constituted a four-member team, consisting of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Law Minister Zahid Hamid and special assistants Barrister Zafarullah Khan and Khawaja Zaheer, to rally opposition support for PoPA’s revival.
The committee was supposed to start a series of meetings with the leaders of opposition parties, but it neither met opposition parties nor could it secure their support for PoPA’s revival, opposition lawmakers told Dawn.
According to Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) MNA Dr Arif Alvi, the government had nothing that could make the opposition support PoPA.
The government had failed to get results from the legislation and only began thinking about reviving the law after it expired. “This only shows the lethargy of the government’s legal team,” he commented.
Had the government’s legal team used the law efficiently, they would have success stories to rally behind, which would mean nobody could even think of opposing the law’s renewal, he said.
Dr Alvi added that the law was hastily promulgated to begin with and it was the opposition parties that had brought amendments to it to make it practical.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator Saeed Ghani confirmed the government had not yet engaged with the opposition over PoPA’s renewal. “The government’s response on this issue shows that PoPA was not their own brainchild, but someone else’s,” he mused.
A security official told Dawn on condition of anonymity that the government was not serious about extending the law that was supposed to help counter terrorism, but was adopting cosmetic measures to demonstrate that it is serious in eliminating terrorism.
Only a handful cases — around 30 — were registered under the law, which are still pending before the courts, the Shuja Khanzada assassination being one of the most high-profile. After PoPA’s expiry, a government law officer said, the cases may be transferred to other courts i.e. anti-terrorism courts, sessions courts or even military courts.
The prosecutor further said that the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 covers some of the scheduled offences that fall under PoPA, including attacks on religious, political, ethnic or minorities; murder; kidnapping; sabotage of public buildings and the use of firearms. He said that the accused who committed such acts could be tried under the ATA.
He added that the ATA also empowered law enforcers to use preventive detention for suspects, so the expiry of PoPA would not necessarily affect that power. In addition, offences such as attacks on mediapersons would be dealt with in accordance with routine procedures laid out in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), he said.
But senior lawyer Ilyas Siddiqui, who is the defence counsel in a PoPA case registered against the kidnappers of MPA Rana Jamil, however, differs with this viewpoint.
“Since the law has expired, any person booked under the scheduled offences of the expired law can neither be tried, nor can PoPA provisions be invoked against any suspect,” he claimed.
PoPA didn’t specify what the fate of pending cases would be after the law’s expiry, which was a mistake by those who drafted the law — since this means that the accused may not be punished, he pointed out.
“The accused has to be released if the law is not revived”, he said.
Initially, the PML-N promulgated the law through an ordinance a few months after it took over the reins of government in 2013. However, the law was converted into an act of parliament when it was tabled before the National Assembly and the Senate. Although PoPA required a simple majority to become law, the PML-N government managed to secure the opposition’s support in passing it from parliament.
The law allows for prolonged preventive and administrative detention and gives law enforcement agencies broad powers to shoot at sight. Offences that fall under PoPA include: crimes against ethnic, religious and political groups; use of nuclear arms; suicide bomb attacks; killing, kidnapping, extortion or attacks on members of parliament, the judiciary, executive, media, armed forces and aid workers.
The law also covers attacks on energy facilities, airports, gas pipelines and grid stations, educational institutions and mass transport system and violence against foreign nationals. It also makes illegally crossing national boundaries a crime.
The law has been criticised for its inefficiency and because it was not used for the purpose for which it was promulgated. Legal experts believe that after its expiry, scheduled offences under PoPA would also perish and cannot be invoked.
The government, on the other hand, seems in no mood to re-promulgate the law through a presidential ordinance. When asked whether it may resort to the promulgation of an ordinance to give PoPA a new lease on life, Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Law and Justice Barrister Zafarullah Khan said, “Not to my knowledge”.
Though Barrister Zafarullah was on the four-member committee tasked with ensuring PoPA’s renewal, he insisted that the matter was the domain of the interior ministry.
In a recent press talk, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had underscored the need to extend lapsed anti-terror laws, an obvious reference to PoPA.