Pakistan's anti-extremism strategy: A 'conveyor belt of killing'

Pakistan's anti-extremism strategy: A 'conveyor belt of killing'
Comment: Pakistan's newfound status as the third most prolific executioner in the world is an integral part of its "counter-terror" strategy, Waqas Mirza
6 min read
04 Jan, 2017
Pakistan executed Christian man Aftab Bahadur, but rights activists say was 'wrongly' convicted [AFP]

In December 2014, gunmen armed with suicide bombs stormed the Army Public School in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

More than 140 students and staff were massacred in one of the country's worst acts of extremism. The attack on unsuspecting schoolchildren shook the country and marked a turning point in Pakistan's "War on Terror".

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif delivered an ominous speech to the still-grieving nation, declaring that "the terrorists struck the future of this country when they murdered those children". The country, he announced, needed to "eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat extremism and sectarianism."

The plan to "eradicate the mindset of terrorism" soon began to take shape: military courts will be established, moratorium on the death penalty will be lifted, a new counter-terrorism force will be raised, proscribed militant groups will no longer be allowed to resurface under new names, and military operations will continue with a renewed vigor.

DAWN, the country's largest English-language newspaper, cautioned that "an expansive role for the military would represent a renewed militarisation of security policy that will have far-reaching, hard-to-reverse consequences". The warning was promptly ignored.

Now, more than two years later, Pakistanis are safer from "terrorist" attacks than they have been in recent memory. Last December, the Pakistan Institute of Conflict and Security Studies announced that terror attacks had decreased to the same level as they had been in 2008.

According to a database maintained by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 1,801 Pakistanis lost their lives to terrorist attacks in 2016, the lowest number of casualties since 2006. The decline of casualties has led some observers to hastily conclude that Pakistan is in fact winning its "War on Terror".

But there remain troubling questions about the brutal methods used by the Pakistani military and the larger counter-terror strategy pursued by the government.

There has been no thorough account of just how many civilians the Pakistani military has killed in the past two years. There are doubts about whether "terrorists" have really been "eradicated" as the Prime Minister promised, or if they simply moved next door to Afghanistan, preferring to live to fight another day.

There have been no efforts to erase the intolerance toward religious minorities taught in the country's textbooks

The government's promise to not distinguish between "good" and "bad" Taliban may have been reassuring, but there is little evidence it has been able to tackle militant groups under the military's protection. Religious persecution of Shia, Ahmadi, and Hindu minorities continues unabated. There have been no efforts to erase the intolerance toward religious minorities taught in the country's textbooks.

Perhaps most importantly, the establishment of military courts and the resumption of executions have created a veritable human rights catastrophe.

In early 2015, a constitutional amendment removed the right to trial in a civilian court for "terrorism" suspects.

Pakistan's military, which had amassed a long record of secret imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial assassination, was granted the power to try these suspects and execute them if necessary. At the time, the country hosted the largest recorded death row population in the world: 8,261 prisoners languished in jail cells across the country, waiting to be executed.

In March 2015, the Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters that nine new military courts were being set up and 50 cases had already been referred to these courts. A review of legal documents provided by lawyers and families of detainees to Reuters showed that the military had denied legal representation to several defendants.

Some claimed to have been tortured in custody. Court documents also showed that the military "can, and sometimes does, dissolve and reprimand courts that reach verdicts they disagree with, then order repeated retrials".

The conveyor belt continued to send cases to military courts and subsequently to the gallows

By May, nearly two months later, Amnesty International had recorded 140 executions in Pakistan since the moratorium was lifted. The organisation said it had "serious concerns" about the number of executions. "It is absolutely shameful that Pakistan has responded to the horrific attack in Peshawar… by switching on the conveyor belt of killing," Amnesty’s Pakistan researcher Sultana Noon told a reporter.

Regardless of these concerns, the conveyor belt continued to send cases to military courts and subsequently to the gallows. Despite the government's claim that only the cases of "hardcore terrorists" would be sent to these courts, an analysis of 180 people executed between January and July 2015 revealed that "fewer than one in six were linked to militancy".

Two subsequent investigations undertaken by the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) and Reuters highlighted the flagrant abuse of detainees, lack of accountability, and seemingly haphazard sentencing of detainees to death.

The JPP investigation charged that military courts were "executing people at a record rate" and there was "overwhelming evidence" that many of those hanged had been "tortured into 'confessing' or were sentenced as children".

It demanded that the government end its "chaotic killing spree". Reuters’ investigation looked at 10 cases of convictions in military courts and found that none of the convicts had been allowed to meet with their lawyers for the duration of the trial, and the lawyers had also been denied access to court records.

The lawyers further claimed that their clients were "either coerced into confessing or deny confessing at all."

People like Azeem, Bahadur - and so many others - are rarely mentioned in the triumphalist narratives of Pakistan's counter-terror strategy

One such case was Ehsan Azeem, who was abducted by unidentified gunmen along with his brother. While his brother "limped home two weeks later, saying he'd been hung upside down and beaten," Azeem was not so lucky.

A military court sentenced him to death. He says he was tortured and never spoke to a lawyer or even appeared in court. An intelligence official described Azeem as a member of a sectarian militant group but no such claims were made in legal documents.

Pakistan's "record rate" of executions includes not just people who have been tried in and sentenced by military courts, but also people such as Aftab Bahadur who were already on death row.

Bahadur was a 38-year old Christian who spent 22 years of his life on death row. He was 15 at the time he was arrested and convicted of murdering three people. The case against him rested on his confession, which his lawyer claims he was tortured into, and testimonies from two eyewitnesses, both of whom later retracted their statements, also claiming to have given them under torture. He was hanged on June 10, 2015.

People like Azeem, Bahadur - and so many others - are rarely mentioned in the triumphalist narratives of Pakistan's "counter-terror" strategy. Their inconvenient cameos complicate the accounts depicting Pakistan's "War on Terror" as an unqualified success, relying on a simplistic statistical decline of "terrorist casualties" without any attention paid to the victims of this war.

But Pakistan's newfound status as the third most prolific executioner in the world is an integral part of its "counter-terror" strategy. The military courts which were once offered as a temporary solution and are now set to become permanent, will undoubtedly continue to produce more victims like Azeem and Bahadur.

The first step toward holding Pakistan's military and government accountable for its crimes is to ensure that they are not forgotten.

Waqas Mirza is a writer and activist based in Massachusetts. His work focuses on US foreign policy, War on Terror, Islamophobia, surveillance, policing and development.

Follow him on Twitter: @waqasahmi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.