(New York) – Pakistan’s government should withdraw a counterterrorism law which threatens basic rights and freedoms in violation of Pakistan’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 2, 2014, the National Assembly passed the Protection of Pakistan Bill to replace the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, which the Senate refused to approve in April over concerns about its potential to violate human rights. The Senate approved the new bill on July 1 and President Mamnoon Hussain is expected to sign it into law within days.
“This vague and overbroad counterterrorism law gives a green light for abusing suspects in detention, which is already far too common in Pakistan,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as leader of the House in the National Assembly, should ensure that this law is replaced by one that ensures the protection of basic rights in the fight against terrorism.”
The new law would violate fundamental rights to freedom of speech, privacy, peaceful assembly, and due process protections embodied in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR), which Pakistan ratified in 2010. In its current form, the law could be used to suppress peaceful political opposition and criticism of government policy.
Media reports described the Parliament and Senate’s approval of the law as a means to support Pakistani security forces, which have launched a massive offensive against suspected terrorists in North Waziristan. Pakistan’s Minister of Science and Technology, Zahid Hamid, reportedly said the law would “give statutory cover” to security forces involved in the ground offensive. However, Pakistani security forces have a long history of using inappropriate force in response to perceived security threats.
On June 17, police fired without warning on stone-throwing supporters of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) political party. The supporters had attempted to resist police demolition of security barriers the party erected in front of its headquarters in the Lahore residential area of Model Town. The police shot dead at least eight unarmed party members, media reported.
The preamble to the ordinance describes the law as necessary “for protection against waging of war or insurrection against Pakistan and the prevention of acts threatening security of Pakistan” so as to expedite the investigation and prosecution of terrorism cases. The bill is in some respects an improvement over its predecessor, the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, 2013. The Ordinance, for example, required only an internal inquiry for security forces suspected of abusing their rights, leading to a lack of accountability. The new law would require a judicial inquiry for such cases.
However, the proposed counterterrorism law contains vague and overly broad definitions that could be used to prosecute peaceful political protesters and those who criticize government policies. Among the most worrying provisions are:
- The vague definition of terrorist acts, which could be used to prosecute a very wide range of conduct far beyond the limits of what can reasonably be considered terrorist activity. Besides “killing, kidnapping, extortion,” the law classifies highly ambiguous acts including “Internet offenses and other offenses related to information technology” as prosecutable crimes without providing specific definitions for such offenses. These terms are so ambiguous that a nonviolent online political protest might be labeled “threatening the security of Pakistan.” As the previous United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism has recommended, the legal definition of terrorism should be limited to acts “committed against members of the general population, or segments of it, with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages,” rather than property crimes;
- The expansion of powers of arrest without warrant from the police to members of the armed forces or “civil armed forces.” The ordinance empowers those forces to “enter and search without warrant any premises to make any arrest or to take possession of any firearm, explosive, weapon, vehicle, instrument, or article used or likely to be used in the commission of any scheduled offense.” Providing such powers without judicial control violates the rights against arbitrary arrest under article 9, and to privacy and the security of the home under article 17 of the ICCPR;
- Shifting the “burden of proof” from government prosecutors to criminal suspects. The ordinance states that those arrested under the law “shall be presumed to be engaged in waging war or insurrection against Pakistan unless he establishes his non-involvement in the offence.” This violates the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence embedded in article 14 of the ICCPR, which ensures “the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law”;
- Providing effective immunity for abuses by security forces and judicial officials acting under the law, protecting them from any liability “for the acts done in good faith during the performance of their duties.” This blanket immunity violates article 2(3) of the ICCPR, which requires that governments ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms are violated “shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity”; and
- Empowering the government to determine the place of custody, inquiry, investigation, and trial. This could permit detentions and prosecutions being conducted outside the established judicial system in violation of basic protections against arbitrary detention under article 9 of the ICCPR and the right to “a fair and public hearing” by an independent and impartial tribunal under article 14.
Terrorism is a very real concern in Pakistan. On June 8, militants attacked Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, killing more than 18 people. The very next day, heavily-armed gunmen from the Sunni Islamist militant group Jaish-ul-Islam attacked a group of Pakistani Shia pilgrims in the town of Taftan in Balochistan province. The attackers – including suicide bombers – raked the pilgrims with machine gun fire and tossed hand grenades. At least 30 died, including at least nine women and a child. After a prolonged firefight, Pakistani security forces killed the attackers.
Sunni militant groups such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, have conducted numerous attacks targeting civilians. Although ostensibly banned, Lashkar-e Jhangvi operates with virtual impunity across Pakistan, as law enforcement officials either turn a blind eye or appear helpless to prevent attacks.
“Denying Pakistanis their universal rights and freedoms as a means to fight terrorism is a victory for the terrorists and a defeat for rule of law,” Kine said. “The government should fully reassess the implications of the Protection of Pakistan Bill with input from local groups and international experts to draft a law that protects the public without sacrificing their rights.”