For more than a century, Pashtun tribes in northwest Pakistan chafed under a draconian law, called the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), that held entire clans and communities responsible for crime committed by an individual or any offense happening on their territory.
Islamabad formally ended the law this year by merging the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But in one part of former FATA, scores of members of rival clans were recently arrested in an apparent bid to establish government authority by enforcing collective responsibility.
Ubaid Chamkani says authorities in the northwestern Kurram tribal district recently arrested scores of men from their Haji Khel clan after a dispute with the residents of Gandao, where a government contractor is mining for diamonds, soapstone and other minerals.
Both communities claim a share of the proceeds from the mining, saying their members should benefit from the natural resources in their homeland. The dispute threatened to turn violent after they called on members to pick up arms and closed the road accessing the region.
“The local administration is so used to the FCR that they invoked it to mass arrest people here,” Chamkani told Radio Mashaal. “[Late last month,] they arrested more than 60 people, including the sick and the elderly. Some are older than 70 or 80, while some suffer from serious ailments such as heart conditions.”
The authorities, however, released some of those who had been arrested on September 7, but many Haji Khel members remain in prison without legal recourse.
“This is a not a minor issue. It could destroy peace in the region for a very long time by fomenting rivalries, disputes, and vendettas,” says Daud Chamkani, a tribal leader. “We ask the authorities to release our people and resolve the dispute soon.”
Obaid Chamkani says the detainees are being pressured into giving up their opposition to the local mining project.
“The local administration is doing whatever they want. They are still operating under the FCR,” he says. “These people were arrested just because they were members of a certain clan. Many are older than 60, which is even a violation of the FCR.”
Arshad Jamil, an assistant commissioner or senior civilian administrator in Kurram, says the arrests were made to prevent bloodshed, establish stability, and open the roads.
“The members of the rival sides were armed and had blocked a road, so we arrested them,” he says. “They had challenged the government’s authority and taken the law into their own hands.”
Jamil says the government wants to resolve the dispute between the Haji Khel and Gandao residents by facilitating a jirga or tribal council. “We want them to amiably and peacefully resolve their problems,” he says.
FATA was formally merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May. Its seven districts and adjacent territories form an arch along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. While the region is being run under interim rules, the process of overhauling and reforming the impoverished region is a daunting task further complicated by bureaucratic inertia, power struggles, and turf wars.
Since 2003, tens of thousands of FATA residents have been killed and millions more displaced because of their homeland’s status as the epicenter for the global war on terrorism. The region’s recent history weighs heavy on government efforts to integrate it into Pakistan’s legal, economic, and political mainstream.
Senior civilian and military officials posted in the region have faced little to no accountability. Residents and analysts see the bureaucracy as reluctant to give up its erstwhile fiefdom.
“These western districts [of former FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] are in legal limbo,” former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says, adding that while all legal protections offered by Pakistani law have been officially extended to the tribal areas, the local authorities seem reluctant to enforce them.
“The military and civil bureaucracy wants to prolong the status quo to further squeeze the dying system [in FATA],” he says.