IV. Laws Used To Detain Protestors

The Pakistani government has detained thousands of lawyers, political party activists, human rights defenders, students, and others without charge. Hundreds of others have been charged under various provisions of Pakistani law, some passed through regular parliamentary procedures, others through irregular and unconstitutional procedures by General Musharraf. The legal provisions most frequently used to detain and charge people since November 3 are provided below. Persons held under such laws—when arrested for the peaceful exercise of their basic human rights, such as to expression, association and assembly—are being held no less arbitrarily under international law than those detained under no law at all.

Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance (1960)

The Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance (1960) finds its origins in the British colonial legal system. The MPO was designed to override standard legal procedures and due process of law in situations where persons were accused of engaging in political protest or posing a threat against the colonial order. Since independence, the Pakistan state has strengthened and made frequent use of the MPO.

The broad and vaguely worded MPO allows the government to “arrest and detain suspected persons” for up to six months for a range of offenses “with a view to preventing any person from acting in any manner prejudicial to public safety or the maintenance of public order.” Since the imposition of the state of emergency, thousands of lawyers and government opponents have been detained, primarily under section 16, entitled, “Dissemination of Rumors etc.,” which prohibits speech that "causes or is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public” or “which furthers or is likely to further any activity prejudicial to public safety or the maintenance of public order.”25 At the time of writing, scores remained in detention under the MPO.

Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997

Adopted under the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the ostensible objective of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) is the “prevention of terrorism, sectarian violence and for speedy trial of heinous offenses.”26 However, essentially the law has been used as an instrument of political coercion, particularly under Musharraf’s rule. The law created special anti-terrorism courts which exist in all four provinces in Pakistan. The jurisdiction of the anti-terrorism court extends to all persons—including children (defined in the law as anyone under the age of eighteen).27

Terrorism is defined broadly and vaguely to include a variety of acts, such as those which “create a serious risk of safety of the public or a section of the public, or is designed to frighten the general public and thereby prevent them from coming out and carrying on their lawful trade and daily business, and disrupts civil life.”28 Offenses are punishable by “imprisonment of not less than five years but may extend to imprisonment of life and with fine.”29

The law permits the government to add or delete offenses without recourse to parliament.30 A prosecutor in Lahore told Human Rights Watch how the ATA was continually revised by the government to address changing political circumstances: “The ATA is subject to constant modification. Every few years the government feels that the definition is insufficient to accommodate offenses so new offenses are added.”31

The ATA has been consistently used by Musharraf’s government to silence and harass opponents. It has used the ATA to periodically detain thousands of political party workers belonging to opposition parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and Jamat-i-Islami (JI). A Lahore High Court judge told Human Rights Watch, “Anytime they [the authorities] want to intimidate or scare people they use the ATA.”32 A prosecutor in the anti-terrorism court in Lahore admitted that the ATA is used to harass politicians: “Filing of false cases against politicians is routine. The ATA is another tool for those in power to harass opposition.”33

Since the state of emergency was imposed, the ATA has been used to detain thousands, including hundreds of lawyers, human rights workers and political activists. Scores remain in detention.

The “Sedition Law” – Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code

Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code is commonly known as the “Sedition Law.” It states: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Federal or Provincial Government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”34

Several lawyers have been charged under this law, but given the seriousness of the charge, evaded arrest by going into hiding. In April 2004, an opposition leader, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, was sentenced under this law to 23 years in prison at Musharraf’s behest.35 His release was ordered by the now deposed Supreme Court in August 2007.36

25 West Pakistan Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, 1960.

26 Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, Preamble.

27 ATA, section 2(d). See also, Human Rights Watch, Prison-Bound – The Denial of Juvenile Justice in Pakistan, section IV, November 1999,

28ATA, section 6(i). Section 6(1) enumerates numerous offenses that constitute “terrorism” if designed to “coerce and intimidate, overawe the Government, the public or a section of the public, community or sect to create a sense of fear or insecurity in society” if it:

(a) involves the doing of anything that causes death;

(b) involves grievous violence against a person or grievous bodily harm or harm to a person;

(c) involves grievous damage to property;

(d) involves the doing of anything that is likely to cause death or endangers a person’s life;

(e) involves kidnapping for ransom, hostage-taking or hijacking;

(f) incites hatred and contempt on religious, sectarian or ethnic basis to stir up violence or cause internal disturbance;

(g) involves stoning, brick-batting or any other form of mischief to spread panic;

(h) involves firing on religious congregations, mosques, imambargahs, churches, temples and all other places of  worship, or random firing to spread panic, or involves any forcible takeover of mosques or other places of worship;

(i) creates a serious risk to safety of public or a section of the public, or is designed to frighten the general public and thereby prevent them from coming out and carrying on their lawful trade and daily business, and disrupts civil life;

(j) involves the burning of vehicles or any other serious form of arson;

(k) involves extortion of money (bhatta) or property;

(l) is designed to seriously interfere with or seriously disrupt communication systems or public utility service;

(m)  involves serious coercion or intimidation of a public servant in order to force him to discharge or to refrain from discharging his lawful duties; or

(n) involves serious violence against a member of the police force, armed forces, civil armed forces, or a public servant.

29 ATA, section 7(h).

30 ATA, section 34.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with prosecutor (name withheld), Lahore High Court, Lahore, April 17, 2006.

32 Human Rights Watch interview with Lahore High Court judge (name withheld), Lahore, April 27, 2006.

33 Human Rights Watch interview with Rana Bakhtiar, Prosecutor, Anti-Terrorism Court, Lahore, April 19, 2006.

34 Pakistan Penal Code.

35 “Pakistan: Bush Should Urge Return to Civilian Rule,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 21, 2004,

36 Nasir Iqbal, “SC orders release of Javed,” Dawn, August 4, 2007, (accessed December 16, 2007).