Peshawar massacre sparks policy shifts

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif’s government has been far from idle in the month since the Peshawar school attack.

Protesters lined up 141 coffins to represent each of those killed in the attack on the Army Public School [Al Jazeera]

A month on from the brazen massacre at a Peshawar school that claimed 149 lives, Pakistan, it seems, is still limping back to life.

In Islamabad on Friday, protesters marked the anniversary of the attack – the deadliest in the country’s history – by carrying 141 coffins to a site near parliament house, demanding justice for those killed from the government.

“Those who support the Taliban, they are traitors, they are traitors!” the protesters shouted, as hundreds of rights activists, political party workers and citizens gathered to mark the anniversary.

The protest in Islamabad was one of several anti-Taliban demonstrations planned across the country, and in cities around the world, including London, Washington DC, New York, Perth, Nairobi and Berlin on Friday.

“I am here to express my solidarity with the victims of terrorism over the last 13 years,” said Umar Altaf, 26, a media researcher at the protest.

Another popular chant at the protest rang out in support of the military’s ongoing operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies in North Waziristan: “[Operation] Zarb-e-Azb zindabad!”

But while demonstrators were protesting against what they say the is a lacklustre response to the attack by civilian authorities, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government has been far from idle in the days since the attack.

Reacting to the groundswell of anger against the TTP, the government has brought in a raft of policy changes, while the military has stepped up its ongoing operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the TTP and its allies are based.

Military steps up operations

The TTP claimed responsibility for the attack even as it was ongoing, saying it was killing the children in the army-run school “in revenge” for the alleged killing of women and children in army operations.

“We targeted the [older children] so that we could kill them today before they became soldiers tomorrow,” said Mullah Fazlullah, in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera on January 7. “As for the younger ones, we’ll see about them when they are older.”

In response, the Pakistani military says it has killed at least 157 people in air strikes and ground operations in the North Waziristan and Khyber tribal areas, the latter of which borders Peshawar and is where the school massacre was allegedly launched from.

Security forces have also arrested more than 2,000 terrorism suspects in search operations after the attack, according to the Interior Ministry. Moreover, 95 “high-profile” targets have been identified in Punjab and police are working to arrest them, the ministry says.

Work is also underway to crack down on those involved in hate speech, with 251 people arrested for committing that crime, and 41 shops have been shut down for disseminating such material, according to government figures.

Military courts and executions

Perhaps the most major policy shifts, however, have been on the judicial front.

A day after the attack, Sharif lifted an informal moratorium on executions – in place since 2008 – in terrorism cases, and in the days after, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali confirmed that about 500 cases were being reviewed for implementation of the death sentence.

Since then, 18 people have been hanged in several jails across the country, most having been convicted for their involvement in attacks against the military. Among those executed were five members of the banned sectarian extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and two men who had killed policemen.

The decision to implement the death penalty has been criticised by rights groups due to major gaps in the Pakistani justice system and because many non-terrorism crimes are tried in Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs).

“The solution [to terrorism cases] lies in imagination and technology, rather than the use of force to try and scare militants,” says Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

“Because, those who attack schools are not really afraid of the death sentence. They’re quite willing to blow themselves up, so the death sentence is really not deterrent.”

In another major policy shift, the parliament voted on January 6 to amend the country’s constitution to allow civilian terrorism suspects to be tried in military courts, where standards for evidence are lower and sentences cannot be appealed in civilian courts.

The move has raised the ire of rights groups, but the government has insisted that it is necessary due to the “extraordinary circumstances” that Pakistan is passing through.

Both measures, however, have received widespread public support.

“I am very happy that they are hanging people, because all of these [terrorists] are cruel people,” said Hasan Syed, a 10-year-old survivor of the attack on the school in Peshawar.

“I think they have taken good steps,” said Tariq Aziz, 30, whose youngest brother Asad, 14, was killed in the attack. “Hanging someone, or killing someone, will not bring our children back […] but they should do something so that our future and children can be saved.”

At the protest in Islamabad on Friday, too, despite criticism of the administration, slogans were raised in support of the military and several demonstrators expressed support for military courts.

“The military courts will help because the judicial system is broken,” said Arsalan Khan, 35, a property dealer who was taking part in the demonstration. “The politicians are all shameless and untrustworthy, that is why we need military courts.”

Action plan

Overall, the government has instituted a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) since the attack took place, in a bid to revamp the country’s counterterrorism policy.

In addition to supporting expanded military operations against armed groups in the country, the NAP specifically calls for action against banned sectarian groups that have so far felt little or no pressure from law enforcement agencies and measures to disrupt terrorist communications networks.

It also calls for measures to punish those, including the news media, deemed to have disseminated terrorist propaganda and the financial and regulatory oversight of the country’s extensive madrassa system.

“The response is quite significant and it’s the first time that all state institutions are responding to the threat,” says Amir Rana, a security analyst who has been involved in consultations with the government over its counterterrorism policy. “This is the first time that the State is trying to develop certain counter terrorism mechanisms [across the board].”

Rana characterised the approach as being one of “zero tolerance”, although he said it was unclear if this meant that the Pakistani state was prepared to go after armed groups that fight against India in Kashmir. A significant shift has also been seen on the sectarian group front, he said.

“There are coordinated operations on the support networks of al-Qaeda and others, which are mostly sectarian in nature,” he said. “The political leadership, their vision of terrorism, is that they are looking at it primarily as sectarian [and] the military is looking at how to break down the bigger networks and the sectarian groups’ nexus with them.”

Meanwhile, back at the protest in Islamabad, demonstrators began to slowly disperse after a couple of hours, despite calls from organisers to stay at the site in order to pressure government officials to meet with them.

“I’m quite sceptical about things changing,” says Altaf, the protester. “But I’ll still come here, whenever I can find the time.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera