Human rights campaigners in Pakistan have criticized the government for enacting a tough security law that grants sweeping powers to security forces in a northwestern province bordering Afghanistan.
Campaigners say that Actions In Aid of Civil Power Ordinance 2019, as the law is formally known, undermines the existing legislation and the constitution and threatens key liberties and rights by granting extensive powers to the armed forces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The region has been the scene of large-scale military operations against the Taliban and allied Islamist hard-line militant organizations.
The government says the law is necessary to mitigate the “unprecedented threat to the territorial integrity” of Pakistan. But legal experts and activists say it is similar to decrees issued in 2011 that provided legal cover to security forces for arbitrary detentions and other abuses committed during military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa starting in 2008.
Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says earlier versions of the law were enacted in 2011 as a “stopgap” arrangement to deal with “jet-black terrorists” detained in the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) since large-scale military operations began in 2008. FATA and PATA were merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. The Taliban and allied groups intermittingly controlled large parts of the regions from 2003 to 2014.
Khattak, a leading human rights campaigner in Pakistan, says enacting the new law across the whole province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa potentially deprives the region’s 35 million predominantly Pashtun residents of their fundamental rights.
“It also literally takes the entire province out of the jurisdiction of the [provincial] High Court and the [Federal] Supreme Court for the people imprisoned under this law,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “This violates the constitution and is dangerous because, if recent experience is anything to go by, the present government is using antiterrorism laws against its political opponents.”
The text of the law states that “armed forces have been requisitioned to carry out actions in aid of civil power” in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to “a grave and unprecedented threat to the territorial integrity of Pakistan by miscreants and foreign-funded elements.”
The decree reportedly enables officers of the armed forces to detain “any person, even if he is not in the defined area, who may obstruct actions in aid of civil power in any manner whatsoever; or if not restrained or incapacitated through internment shall strengthen the miscreants’ ability to resist the armed forces or any law enforcement agency.”
“Whoever obstructs in any manner the actions in aid of civil power or threatens in any manner whatsoever the peace and tranquility of any area by subversion, spreading literature, delivering speeches electronically or otherwise and thus inciting the people in commissioning any offense under any law shall be deemed to have committed offense under the ordinance,” one provision of the law said.
The law catalogs certain offenses such as “challenging the authority and writ of the provincial government” and committing an act “which threatens the peace, safety, and defense of Pakistan” to be punishable by sentences ranging from fines, forfeiture of property, multi-year and life imprisonments to the death penalty.
In a September 18 statement, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country’s leading human rights watchdog, said it was appalled to learn that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had silently enacted the decree last month.
“HRCP is gravely concerned that serious violations of human rights may be given legal cover under this ordinance,” the statement said. The organization has frequently criticized the previous version of the law and campaigned for closing the internment centers created for holding suspects detained under the ordinance.
The organization said Islamabad was undoing the steps taken to provide the residents of FATA and PATA with fundamental rights and access to justice by merging these regions into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “Ironically, the ordinance may now compromise the rights of citizens across the entire province,” HRCP said.
It called on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial government to provide security to the region’s residents by upholding law and order.
“HRCP strongly urges the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government to heed the aspirations of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s people and focus instead on strengthening civilian authority and capacity in the province,” the statement concluded.
In 2011, Pakistan enacted two versions of Actions In Aid of Civil Powers Ordinance that were designed to provide legal cover for the actions of armed forces in FATA and PATA. The military had been battling to contain the Pakistani Taliban and its Arab and Central Asian allies in these regions since 2003. But most large-scale military offensives began in 2008.
The law, however, was criticized for its harsh measures and the sweeping powers granted to the armed forces. It was challenged in the Pakistani courts.
A recent hearing of one such case this week revealed that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government quietly enacted a new version of the law on August 5 when the provincial governor decreed it.