By Irfan Hussain
June 14th, 2009
WE shoot ourselves in the foot with predictable regularity. Take the release of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed from house arrest, for example.
Picked up in the crackdown on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s successor, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks last November, Saeed spent around six months in “custody” before being sprung recently by the Lahore high court on grounds of insufficient evidence.
This is not the first time clerics accused of sundry crimes of violence have walked out of comfortable sojourns at home. Another leader of a jihadi outfit was arrested some seven years ago following attacks on the Srinagar Assembly that killed 30. Days later, the Parliament building in New Delhi was attacked, and again Jaish-e-Mohammad was implicated.
After the usual dance of denial, Maulana Masood Azhar was arrested and, later, the Jaish was banned. Nevertheless, relations between India and Pakistan plunged, and the two countries came close to war. For months, their respective armies were eyeball to eyeball, and the world feared a nuclear exchange.
Even then, the Maulana was no stranger to legal restrictions: he had been arrested by Indian authorities in Kashmir in 1994, and released in a deal to free hostages taken in an Indian Airlines plane hijacking in December 1999. Although Pakistan initially denied he had entered the country from Afghanistan after his release, Masood Azhar soon addressed a rally in Karachi where he said: “I have come here because it is my duty to tell you that Muslims should not rest in peace until we have destroyed America and India”.
So given this background of violence and open threats, why are people like Saeed and Azhar still walking free? Many Indian readers have asked me in angry emails why the former was released after the carnage his organisation allegedly committed in Mumbai last November, according to intercepted phone calls and the confession of the sole survivor of the attack.
Why indeed? In England, where I am currently, many friends have asked me the same question. It is hard to convince anybody that had the state been serious, keeping Saeed in custody would not have been impossible. While I am sure the prosecution case was flimsy, we all know that when the government wishes to, all kinds of legal gimmicks are deployed to retain individuals as guests of the state. Indeed, thousands of prisoners have been rotting in jails across Pakistan for years, still awaiting trial.
While browsing through Google for this article, I came across a piece (Paying for the past, February 2, 2002) I had written seven years ago. I normally never quote from my own articles, but apart from the neat symmetry of the date, I thought I had something relevant to say all those years ago: “Rich and powerful states and individuals often get away with their crimes, while the weak and the poor usually get caught and punished… When we allowed… (Maulana Masood Azhar) to move in after he was freed from an Indian jail in the aftermath of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Afghanistan in the last days of 1999, surely somebody in authority knew we were violating international norms. But to compound this act, Maulana Azhar was allowed to raise the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a group that operated freely in Pakistan and in… Kashmir...”
“Another embarrassment has been caused by the famous list handed over to our government by the Indians. Apart from those Pakistanis released from Indian prisons, there are 15 names of Indians accused of extremely serious crimes in their own country. Despite official denial of any knowledge of their whereabouts, last year Newsline, a Karachi-based monthly, ran a cover story giving details of the comfortable exile several of these people were enjoying in Karachi under official protection. No denial was issued by the government at that time.
“The problem with handing them over, of course, is that there is no telling what they might spill to the Indian authorities to save their own skins. The last thing General Musharraf would want at the height of a military stand-off is a series of shocking revelations or operational details about covert, illegal acts”.
This, of course, is the dilemma of using criminals and terrorists to further the state’s agenda: they become an embarrassment or, worse, turn against their handlers. It has always struck me as ironic that people like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar use random violence against the innocent as a tool, while claiming the protection of the Constitution when they are arrested. Thus, while people like them organise terror operations targeting ordinary citizens, when caught they demand their habeas corpus rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
Many countries have tried to strike a balance between human rights and the protection of their citizens from terrorism. In Britain, an anti-terror law was enacted in 2005 under which suspects can be put under virtual house arrest, barred from going abroad, and using telephones and the Internet. These restrictions are imposed because there is insufficient hard evidence to try them, and yet there is a strong suspicion that they pose a threat.
Clearly, for the innocent such a state of legal limbo would be a nightmare. In Britain, several people have mounted a legal challenge against being held under this law. And certainly, it can be misused by overzealous officials who do not want to take the risk of letting potential terrorists run around free. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to gather hard evidence in cases of terrorism, especially against leaders of jihadi organisations who do not pull the trigger themselves. Their DNA is absent from the debris collected after suicide bombings, and it becomes difficult to convict them under existing laws.
The sad reality in Pakistan is that when the state wishes to hold an individual, nobody is beyond its reach. So when people like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, Masood Azhar and Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid fame are released by our superior courts on grounds of insufficient evidence, we have the right to ask what’s going on. Some of these people have publicly urged their misguided followers to commit violent acts, so to pretend they should get the benefit of the doubt is dangerous legal sophistry.
Finally, the Army has taken off its gloves in the fight against extremism. And if new laws are required to combat this menace on the judicial level, Parliament must do whatever it takes.
Courtesy: Deccan Chronicle, Bangalore
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