It’s been a rough week for Pakistan. On Tuesday, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban) attacked a school for the children of army officers, killing at least 141 people, among them 132 kids.
Many commenters, including me, said this was a tragic example of chickens coming home to roost—that Pakistan’s decades-long strategy of playing both sides in the war on terror and thinking it could control brutal Islamic militants was unsustainable.
Despite the attack uniting ordinary Pakistanis in grief and fury, Pakistan’s government did little to dispel a reputation for ineptitude and duplicity. The day after the school attack, Pakistan reinstated the death penalty for terrorism. However, on Thursday, two days after one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in memory, a Pakistani anti-terrorism court granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the organizers of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.
From afar, it certainly appears Pakistan follows a terrorism for thee, but not for me approach. If it’s attacks on Indians and foreigners, that’s regrettable but not Pakistan’s problem. If it’s an attack on Pakistanis, that’s terrorism. But it’s not that simple.
It’s unclear why Lakhvi was allowed to post a $10,000 bond, but according to the Wall Street Journal, his lawyer argued that, “there is insufficient evidence to connect my client to the Mumbai attack.” The government said it would appeal the ruling and Lakvi never left the jail; Pakistani police held him in prison under a special “maintenance of public order” rule while the appeal went forward.
But the fact that the courts would grant bail to the operational head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most dangerous Pakistani terror groups around, is just the latest in a long line cases where terrorism suspects have been released for lack of evidence. Pakistani anti-terrorism courts have a dismal conviction record; the majority of cases brought before the courts are dismissed for tainted evidence or the lack of it.
That’s not to say the judges are Taliban sympathizers, but they are vulnerable. Their names are public and it’s easy for Islamic militants to threaten them, their families, and witnesses. As the U.S. State Department said in its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013: “Intimidation by terrorists against witnesses, police, victims, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges contributed both to the slow progress of cases in Antiterrorism Courts and a high acquittal rate. Prosecutors often lacked resources needed to conduct successfully prosecutions in the trial phase.”
Indeed, a 2010 review of the anti-terrorism court rulings conducted by the United States found that 75 percent of defendants were acquitted. The review painted a picture of “a legal system almost incapable of prosecuting suspected terrorists” and determined that “the accused in numerous high-profile terrorism incidents involving U.S. victims had all been acquitted by the Pakistani legal system.”
So dismal is the record that in 205 cases tried in two anti-terrorism courts in Rawalpindi, base of the army, fewer than 10 were convicted, according to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn. The Islamabad court is even worse. Not one suspect has been convicted there.
So it’s not a matter of Pakistani courts doing the Taliban’s will; they simply don’t have the capacity to handle these cases.
The police often don’t help matters. There’s a tradition of roughing up or even torturing a confession out of suspects, and when a defendant says was “coerced,” judges often consider the case irretrievably tainted and release the defendant for “lack of evidence.” (A problem the U.S. also is facing with its terror suspects who have been tortured. No civilian court date for them!)
Pakistan, for various legal and historical reasons, also has a limited capacity for accepting evidence from foreign sources, which the State Department acknowledges. This situation benefits Lakvi. The case against him relies heavily on evidence provided by Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, and given relations between the two countries and Pakistan’s legal limitations on foreign evidence, is there any wonder Lakhvi might walk?
Since 2007, more than 2,000 terrorism suspects have been acquitted and released, Dawn reports, with many of them rejoining terror groups. One of the most infamous is Malik Ishaq, head of the virulently anti-Shi’ite group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Ishaq has the blood of thousands of innocent Shi’ites on his hands, yet in 2013 one of the Rawalpindi courts let him go. Again, lack of evidence.
Despite Pakistan’s Keystone Kops-style investigative and legal system, or more likely because of it, the average Pakistani has had enough. Thousands stridently cheered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to lift a six-year moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism suspects. Bloodthirsty calls for revenge have filled Facebook and Twitter. Already, 17 convicted terrorists are expected to be hanged within days, and in an online poll at the Express-Tribune, one of Pakistan’s more liberal, English-language papers, 93 percent of poll respondents favored reinstating the death penalty.
More than 800 prisoners on death row are listed as terrorists, according to Justice Project Pakistan and Reprieve.
It’s unclear why the threat of hanging would deter a group that routinely uses suicide bombers, but it’s clear the mood in Pakistan is to demand blood for blood. Regardless of the efficacy and morality of the death penalty, it’s time for Pakistani politicians and generals, who have often found Islamic militants useful in some fashion whether as shock troops or bogeymen, to listen to their people and strengthen the legal system, provide proper security to judges and train and equip the police properly. Because if they don’t, these murdering monsters will continue to walk, and more children will die.