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Pakistan rights groups decry 'terror' laws

Compared to the US Patriot Act by critics, some believe Pakistan law will foster more impunity.

Last updated: 06 Apr 2014 11:38
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Pakistan believes tougher laws are needed to tackle criminal gangs and insurgencies [Reuters]

Pakistan's government is pressing ahead with a stringent new law which it says will help fight "terrorism" and criminal elements.

The proposed legislation, which treads the path of US Homeland Security Act and other pieces of legislation, is creating unease among civil rights activists, who consider it a license to kill for Pakistan's security forces.

Lawyers at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) are concerned about the implications of some of the provisions.

"Law enforcement agencies have been given powers to fire on suspicion [earlier it was in self-defence]," the lawyers said in a statement. "We have already witnessed trigger-happy rangers in Karachi, it will only make matters worse. We believe it legitimises disappearances."

Members of the ruling party say the new legislation, known as the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO), is necessary to improve security, dismissing the concerns of activists.

"Due to the ongoing security situation in the country, we urgently needed a comprehensive law to empower security forces to deal with various challenges," Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a member of Pakistan's ruling Muslim League Nawaz party told Al Jazeera. "There is political consensus for peace in the county and for that, [new legislation] is necessary… There are proper checks and balances to ensure no excesses are committed against anyone."

But that's precisely what activists fear will happen. Mirza Shahzad Akbar, co-founder of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, said the law reverses the burden of proof, meaning arrested individuals will have to "prove they aren't terrorists" rather than being innocent until proven guilty. Provisions in the legislation also increase the likelihood of suspects being tortured, he said.

Pakistan is a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture, but the proposed legislation makes any statements given to law enforcement agencies admissible in court. This has led to fears that security forces will employ harsh interrogation methods to secure convictions. 

Opposition politicians also question the implementation of the new ordinance, as it is being used on a temporary basis, but has not been formally ratified by parliament. "All bills should be placed before parliament which can be summoned if emergency legislation is needed," Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Al Jazeera.

Failures of policing

Opposition lawmakers say tough laws already exist to tackle political violence. Pakistan's government needs to focus on implementing and improving existing laws, they say, rather than distracting itself by creating new ones. Many argue that current political and religious violence is due to the failure of basic policing, and governance issues which cannot be fixed with more legislation.

Activists say they can understand the government's desperation in confronting militancy but don't agree with the proposed solutions.

[The ordinance] is not meant to allow violations of human rights but to improve the current situation under a system of accountability.

- Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, politician 

Last month, Pakistan drew up its first ever National Security Policy. The government says it means business when it comes to reshaping the security environment in a decade-old internal conflict which has claimed more than 50,000 lives. A senior government adviser likened the PPO to the US Patriot Act, an imposing legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks. 

"The law represents the legacy of the war on terror... Reduction of rights for defendants, longer periods of detention without charges and the suspension of procedural safeguards," said Rafia Zakaria, a member of Amnesty International's board of directors. "It also creates disproportionate criminalisation of impoverished communities with poor, ethnic and religious minorities bearing the brunt of their burden."

This is not the first time Pakistan's government has tried to pass controversial security legislation.

In 2011, a presidential decree (later made law) issued two similar regulations to provide legal cover to the armed forces during military operations in the tribal areas.

Recently, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered a meeting between a man booked under these laws and his family. Tasif was picked up two years ago and his father-in-law said he seems to have been badly tortured during his incarceration. The security forces initially denied they had custody of Tasif when he went missing. Then he suddenly appeared in detention.

"What kind of fraud are you committing with the people?" a judge asked the Additional Attorney General representing government agents. "For the last two years we kept on asking about him and you kept denying you knew. What will the people think? Are our intelligence agencies always lying? What kind of country is this?"

Human Rights campaigners believe toughening laws is not a solution. For them the main issues are of enforcement and prosecution. The evidence against those charged with terrorism is usually so poor that over 60 percent are acquitted by the courts, according to lawyers.

Vankwani, the politician, is confident the government will not allow random people to be picked up by security agencies. He thinks the law is worth a showdown in parliament, so security forces can act on intelligence. "The PPO is not meant to allow violations of human rights but to improve the current situation. [It's] an attempt to bring those [like the ones responsible for missing people] under a system of accountability," he said.

Civil libertarians, however, say that concrete steps are needed to establish the writ of the state - and that until then, the crutches of ordinances will be ineffective in saving lives or providing any lasting solution to Pakistan's security problems.

Editor's note:

Since this was published, Pakistan’s government has passed the Protection of Pakistan bill into law refusing all suggested amendments by the opposition. On Monday, members of the national assembly boycotted proceedings as the government used its higher numbers to pass the bill. Some MPs tore copies of the bill, calling it a black law. An opposition member told Al Jazeera that they will be challenging the unconstitutional clauses of the law in court and build a public campaign against it.

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