It’s been almost two weeks since Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old peace activist from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, was shot in cold blood for daring to defy the Taliban’s archaic beliefs. More than 200 people have been arrested in the case, and subsequently released, but law enforcement has struggled to positively identify the men who attacked the young girl—until now.
Two senior officials announced that a man suspected of attacking Malala—who goes by the name of Ataullah—had been captured by the Army back in 2009 as a suspected Taliban member, but was released due to “lack of evidence.” However, they added, steps are being taken to bring him back into custody—including, one official said, the detention of his mother and two brothers. Two other relatives, who are suspected of having helped Attaullah hide as he fled Swat, have also been arrested, according to the officials.
On Oct. 9, two gunmen stopped Malala’s school bus and asked the girls aboard to identify her. Upon confirmation, they opened fire, hitting her in the head and shoulder and injuring two other girls. Malala is currently undergoing specialized treatment at a London hospital; neither she nor her friends have been able to identify the attackers.
The release of a suspected militant due to lack of evidence is nothing new, according to independent analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “This is a routine problem in Pakistan,” he told The Daily Beast. “We don’t have proper investigations, our prosecutors are ill-equipped to handle terrorism cases, and there is no system to protect witnesses so no one speaks up.” In addition, says Rizvi, militant groups inspired by religion have support across large segments of Pakistani society. “People don’t want to speak out against these people because they agree with their ideology. In those cases, many witnesses prefer to withhold evidence.”
Lack of evidence and flawed prosecutions may not be the only problems when it comes to putting away extremists. One of the senior officials has claimed that Attaullah was not a militant when he was arrested three years ago, but merely a “sympathizer.” According to Rizvi, rather than being discouraged in the years since, extremism has flourished. “Radicalization in Pakistan has never been easier or more widespread,” he says, adding that the intelligence agencies have a policy of ignoring extremist groups until they pose a direct threat. “This policy must stop—we can increase surveillance and stop these people before they attack if we have the will.”
Sadly, the will to act is lacking on the part of the law. Pakistan’s courts have a history of releasing suspected militants due to insufficient evidence. The most prominent among these was Malik Ishaq, the leader of the militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who has been implicated in dozens of cases, mostly involving murder. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has even ordered the government to quickly rebuild the Jamia Hafsa madrassa adjoining the Lal Masjid mosque and questioned the status of cases—most of which have already been dropped—pending against chief cleric Abdul Aziz. “It isn’t entirely the courts’ fault,” says Rizvi. “The prosecution is usually so subpar that they have no choice but to drop the cases or release the accused.” It doesn’t help that most terrorism cases are tried in lower district and sessions courts, whose judges are not accorded a full security protocol. “The judges are scared,” says Rizvi, “Who wouldn’t be? Look at the judge who had Mumtaz Qadri [Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s killer] declared guilty. He had to flee the country. They have no choice but to seek quick trials for their own safety.”
The Pakistani Taliban had threatened Malala in March, claiming she was one of two women on their hit list for working “in the interest of the West and supporting the imposition of secular rule in Swat.” Police have told journalists that in light of the threat, Malala had been offered protection earlier this year, but her father Ziauddin had refused. According to Ziauddin, he turned down the protection because he wanted his daughter to lead a normal life. The Taliban has already promised that if Malala survives, they will try to harm her again. For the girl who dared to dream of an education without restrictions, that normalcy may be a thing of the past.