Almost everyone agrees that terrorism must be eradicated, but many groups criticize the route taken to accomplish this. One school of thought believes the war against terrorism itself is terrorism. Alternatively, some debate the necessity of harsh measures while others push for addressing the root cause to nip the evil in bud.

Dissenting views are essential to maintain balance in any society. This agreement to disagree can even be seen at the highest levels of the United Nations. Despite the zero-tolerance policy of the UN Office of Counter terrorism, the Human Rights Committee is ever concerned about the Anti-Terrorism Act’s (ATA) extensive powers. Occasionally reviewing laws that criminalized terrorism would be prudent before joining either pressure group. It is true that various sections of the law penalize war against the country, sedition, and mutiny, which are the basic components of terrorism; however, its inherent nature is largely lacking for the ever-mutating nature of terrorist activity.

As a result of sectarian conflicts and target killings during the late 70s and early 90s, the country was plunged into a deep swamp of instability and violence. Along with other supplementary laws, the Suppression of Terrorist Activities (Special Courts) Act 1975 and the Terrorist Affected Areas (Special Courts) Ordinance 1990 were passed. In contrast, our chronic problem has been the careless way in which laws have been implemented. The ATA was Pakistan’s primary legislation dealing with terrorism in this context. Through various Ordinances or Acts, provisions of the said law have been regularly amended or added.

In the post 9/11 world, a variety of laws were needed to ensure uniform transnational anti-terrorism policies, one of which was terror financing. The Fourth Schedule of the ATA was amended in 2001 to curb financial support for terrorism. Several amendments were made to the law in 2013 and 2014 to further clamp down on terror financing. Earlier to these amendments, special laws aimed at curtailing money laundering were introduced in 2007 and 2010. Although Pakistan has taken early steps to improve its financial situation, one wonders why the Paris-based watchdog ‘Financial Action Task Force’ placed it on the ‘Grey List’. Maybe having a law is one thing, and unyieldingly enforcing it is another! It must be admitted that the blame cannot be pinned entirely on the legislature, executive, or judiciary. It was practically impossible for the government to control terror financing because proscribed organizations disguise their motives as Islamic causes, and the masses give away charity with such cavalier disregard.

The amendment passed on January 10, 2002, emphasized the speedy completion of the trial while specifying a ten-month time frame. As a result of the law, a single bench was expanded to a three-member bench, along with the introduction of one military personnel. A similar solution to having military courts was reinforced in 2014 under the Protection of Pakistan Act. It does not take much convincing that our judicial infrastructure needs serious overhauls, however, makeshift arrangements that endorse and advertise inefficiency do more harm to the cause than good. Despite a lapse of two decades, neither our law enforcement agencies nor our judiciary are inclined to increase their capacity. It is still popular to prefer quick fixes over substantial reforms. This results in lengthy trials which rarely yield the desired results and a system still on artificial life support.

A significant addition to the 2002 amendment was the ability to detain a suspect for up to a year without filing any criminal charges. This very amendment stimulated the deliberations regarding missing persons, it wouldn’t be wrong to say. Interestingly Articles 9 and 10 of our Constitution, however, guarantee a person’s security as well as their freedom from arrest and detention. But on the other hand, it allows the making of laws for dealing with persons acting in a manner prejudicial to country integrity, security, and defense. Additionally, the Action (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations 2011 allowed the restriction of miscreants in internment centers during counter-insurgency operations in Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

In recent years, there has been continuous criticism of the definition of terrorism provided under the ATA. There were originally only two paragraphs in Section 6 ATA defining terrorism, but today the same has been extended to nearly 30 paragraphs. The criminal code was amended in 2005 to include offenses such as kidnapping for ransom and explosives. Due to the aftermath of the Lal Masjid attack, attacks on public properties, such as government buildings, schools, and hospitals, were also included in the definition. The addendums might have been necessary, yet an overstretched definition of terrorism that would include almost all crimes without any link to militancy wasn’t prudent. As a result, the necessity and significance of the ATA have been undermined.

The basic test to categorize an act as terrorism under section 6 of the ATA is whether it was designed to create fear among the population. As a result of such an ambiguous requirement, the justice system has clearly endured more loss than value. As examples, two separate murders between political rivals and a murder of a couple accused of extramarital affairs have also been tried under ATA. According to records, many cases are transferred from antiterrorism courts to regular courts due to incorrectly drafted FIRs. The apex court of the country has also recommended that the ATA be revised carefully.

With every passing day, the government was restrained from enforcing its anti-terrorism laws due to the advancement of modern technology. Therefore, both the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance 2007 and the Act that replaced it in 2016 included provisions relating to terrorism. National Counter Terrorism Authority was also constituted in 2009 to have a holistic counter terrorism strategy by collecting and disseminating data between all stakeholders.

Law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies remain at odds with each other, which is one of the main setbacks to counter terrorism activities. It is common practice for suspects to be picked up first by other agencies and then transferred to police later. Police are therefore forced to fabricate a story regarding the arrest incident, which ultimately falls apart in court. Due to lack of credibility in the story narrated in the First Information Report, such procedural irregularities only benefit the suspects when they are eventually released.

Unless existing cracks in the system are filled, a better result cannot be expected. Legislation can never be perfect despite the plethora of numerous other laws that address this topic. Providing robust training not only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but also to judges and lawyers will provide the results we need. The good news is that sane voices within the system are raising red flags. To achieve a safe society for future generations, all stakeholders must take stock and work together.