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When the law lets extremists off

In Pakistan’s war against religious extremism, what is becoming apparent is that the government is not making the impact that it should.

world Updated: Nov 10, 2010 00:26 IST

In Pakistan’s war against religious extremism, what is becoming apparent is that the government is not making the impact that it should. One of the problems in this war is that those arrested by the authorities are being released or treated very sympathetically despite the fact that they have been awarded rigourous sentences. This lowers morale of the law enforcement agencies.

Officials say that hundreds of militants that were arrested are awaiting trial. Those who have been convicted are enjoying an unprecedented level of freedom within the jails. And those sentenced to death for their extreme acts of terror, are yet to be executed. Worse, many are being freed by various courts on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Not all those arrested under the anti-terror laws are militants. The Supreme Court, under active chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has also so far ordered several hundred persons detained under anti-terrorism laws to be freed. One reason for this is the insufficient evidence gathered against them. Another is that the authorities took into custody people other than terrorists, as was seen during President Musharraf’s government.

These are Pakistan’s several hundred missing persons. The Supreme Court has taken it upon itself to find the whereabouts of these people.

The Pakistan government has been unable to officially accept how many of such people are in its detention.

“It is strange how ... political prisoners are kept and terrorists are released,” said one official. Lawyer and Human Rights activist Iqbal Haider says that while there are fears that the Supreme Court may be ordering the release of known extremists, “what is more worrisome is that the police has not done its homework. Evidence was cooked up and stock witnesses were used to convict.” Now those people are being freed on the intervention of the SC.

The government’s inaction also comes in its inability to carry out sentences awarded to terror convicts. Unlike other prisoners, these men are given preferential treatment. “Take the example of Omar Shaikh, sentenced to death for the killing of US journalist Daniel Pearl. He has gained ten kilos since he was imprisoned some years back,” says an official.

Militants are given access to mobile phones and they operate from within the jail premises. Officials say that the militants are growing bolder. The instances of kidnappings have also grown where the government is pressurised then to exchange the kidnapped person with a militant in jail.

All this drives the morale of law enforcement officials very low, analysts warn. For example, almost all militants arrested by armed forces for the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad have been released by the courts or by the government. This is cause for worry, say observers.

First Published: Nov 10, 2010 00:25 IST