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New Pakistani Counterterrorism Law Draws Criticism from Rights Groups

Pakistani Police escort a man through the halls of a court in Karachi.
Pakistani Police escort a man through the halls of a court in Karachi.
Pakistani human rights campaigners have criticized a new counterterrorism law that they say violates safeguards enshrined in the country’s current constitution and could institutionalize abusive practices.

According to Zohra Yousaf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the “Protection of Pakistan Ordinance 2014” enables Pakistani security forces to engage in grave human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings.

"This ordinance gives security forces the authority to violate the law," she said. "A number of human rights violations now have a legal cover under the new law."

Asma Jahangir, a prominent Pakistani activist, agreed, fearing the new law could turn the country into a security state without protections for citizens. "The whole country will turn into a 'Guantanamo Bay' where people can be detained without any warrants and trails,” she said. "How can an elected government enact such legislations?"

Pakistan's President Mamnoon Hussain signed the ordinance into law on January 22. Among many provisions, it empowers security forces to detain a terrorism suspect for 90 days without presenting him before a court, and calls for treating terrorists "as enemy aliens" to be dealt with "strictly without any compunction."

Latif Afridi, a senior lawyer in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, pointed to another law, "Action In Aid of Civil Power Regulation, 2011" to suggest that draconian laws have not helped Islamabad struggle against the Taliban.

Two years after the law was enacted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and adjoining tribal areas, the Taliban are nowhere near defeat and have recently unleased a new terror campaign, Afridi told Radio Mashaal.

"This law is a symptom of the affliction haunting Pakistan," he said. "The government is belatedly trying to control violence after it spread into all regions of the country."

Campaigners see the law as having a negative impact on the southwestern province of Balochistan, where human rights watchdogs accuse Islamabad of engaging in systematic abuses to crush a separatist insurgency.

A small band of relatives of Baloch victims of enforced disappearances are currently marching across Pakistan to raise awareness about their ordeal. But the new law is unlikely to end such abuses.

"The new law will not change the status quo in Balochistan," Zahoor Shahwani, a human rights activist in Balochistan's capital, Quetta, told Radio Mashaal.

Shahwani said that the law also contradicts Pakistan's supreme law. "The constitution bounds security forces to produce a detainee before a court within 24 hours of his arrest."

Pakistan's Supreme Court is examining the law to determine whether it violates constitutional protections.

Many Pakistani political parties have voiced their opposition to the new law.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif engaged in low-profile moves to convince opposition politicians to back the law. In October he wrote a letter asking for their support. "The federal government considered it imperative to put in place a legal mechanism for intervention to protect the right and liberty of the common man, as well as the sovereignty and integrity of the state of Pakistan," he wrote.

Since assuming office last summer, Sharif has pushed through many sweeping changes to the country's antiterrorism laws. His administration has advocated for new anti-terrorism courts empowered to decide cases quickly. New laws also provide greater security to witnesses and prosecutors, and admit electronic and scientific evidence previously discounted in terrorism-related cases.