22 JANUARY 2016
Grim reminder in Charsadda
The attack by terrorists on Bacha Khan University in northwestern Pakistan, which left at least 21 people dead, raises serious questions about Islamabad’s anti-terror strategy. The assault demonstrates that despite a year-long enhanced counterterror offensive by the Army, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) retains the capacity to inflict lethal harm. The attack in Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (the old NWFP) comes over a year after the TTP stormed an Army school in nearby Peshawar, killing 134 children. That massacre had prompted widespread anger, forcing the Army to launch a massive crackdown on Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions, detained thousands of suspected Islamist militants, and stepped up attacks on the TTP. This had fractured the Taliban organisationally, and there were fewer attacks in big cities last year. But, as the latest attack shows, the crackdown failed to neutralise the security challenges the TTP poses to the Pakistani state.
This is mainly owing to two reasons. First, Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy is heavily reliant on its security establishment. To be sure, the army plays a vital role in any campaign against terrorist groups, but its focus would obviously be on the terrorist infrastructure. But Islamabad needs a broader, more comprehensive strategy to deal with the issue at the grassroots level. It has to identify and break up local terrorist networks, counter radical ideology, and more important, take adequate measures to address lawlessness and extreme poverty in the northwestern mountainous region, a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists. Second, Islamabad’s dual policy towards terrorism is self-defeating. Even as it fights groups such as the TTP, the Army is deeply involved with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and anti-India terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Using jihadists for strategic gains has been a deliberate strategy for Pakistan’s military establishment for decades. That strategy has been proven counterproductive over the years. Unfortunately, Pakistan has continued this double game for geopolitical gains. Even after the Peshawar attack, the Army’s focus was only on the TTP factions, while it kept intact its good ties with the Afghan Taliban, who control huge swathes of territory in the neighbouring country. As a result, the TTP, even if it is beaten by the Army, can retreat to Afghanistan, regroup there and move back to Pakistan to carry out strikes. Pakistan is aware of these fault lines. But it still won’t amend its strategy because it looks at the Afghan Taliban as a strategic vehicle to expand its interests in South Asia. This dual policy has weakened the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, while making Pakistan’s own campaign against extremism ineffective. Thus Pakistan remains caught between its own growing internal security challenges and a flawed geopolitical strategy. The way forward for Islamabad is to come out of this mess and join other regional powers in a consistent fight against all forms of terrorism.
Compassion on death row cases
Death row convict Mohammed Arif alias Ashfaq, a Pakistani national found guilty of conspiring to organise the attack on the Red Fort complex in Delhi in 2000, in which two Army soldiers and a sentry were killed, has been given one more opportunity of an oral hearing. His lawyers have been allowed by the Supreme Court to file a fresh petition seeking a review of the death sentence confirmed by the court in August 2011 so that the matter can be heard once again in open court. The court has once again demonstrated its inexhaustible capacity to deal with death penalty cases in a spirit of compassion. A September 2014 Constitution Bench judgment ruling that a 30-minute oral hearing in open court for every review petition involving the penalty is a constitutional requirement was not applicable to Ashfaq, one of the petitioners before it. This was because the limited oral hearing in death row cases was just an exception to the general rule that review petitions be decided by circulation of the papers among judges. The exception was limited to those cases in which both a review petition and a subsequent curative plea had already been rejected. In Ashfaq’s case, the court declined to review his sentence in August 2012 and the curative petition was rejected in January 2014. Chief Justice T.S. Thakur has, however, decided that he deserves a concession in order that even the slightest possibility of error may be eliminated, for he was the sole convict who did not get the benefit of the earlier verdict.
After upholding Ashfaq’s death sentence and declining to review it, obviously because there was no apparent error, is it not mere moral tokenism to afford him another oral hearing? Howsoever one may answer this question, it cannot be disputed that the Supreme Court has been dealing with cases culminating in the death penalty in a liberal spirit in recent years. It has delivered a series of judgments widening the scope of the clemency jurisdiction. Even when constrained by an earlier judgment by another five-member Constitution Bench allowing the disposal of review petitions without an oral hearing, the Bench, in 2014, carved out an exception for death row cases alone by making oral hearing an integral part of ‘reasonable procedure’. By extending the benefit to Ashaq, a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist found guilty of plotting and facilitating an audacious attack , the court is enhancing the value of due process. Some critics may question the wisdom of being magnanimous towards such offenders and not taking a stern stand against all forms of terrorism. This apparent conflict between the thirst for condign punishment and the twinge of conscience about sending one to the gallows will persist as long as the death penalty remains on the statute book. Until it is well and truly abolished, it is only the court that can humanise the law and procedure relating to death and mercy.