Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Amending the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997

The Swat offensive has been going pretty well. Everyday there is news of more Taliban laying down their arms. Recently, the army has nabbed Muslim Khan, Sher Mohammed Qasab and Mahmood Khan, three of Fazlullah's top commanders. All in all, it is reported that we have 600 captured militants awaiting trial.

The government is understandably nervous. It has an extremely shoddy record when it comes to prosecuting terrorists. Investigation is often slipshod and government attorneys unconvincing. That probably explains the government and the agencies' proclivity for disappearing people instead of trying them in court. But now it seems that the government and the military understand that a public trial of militants is essential for success against the Taliban.

To bolster its ability to prosecute militants, the government has proposed amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. These amendments give investigators more time to build a case, increases the maximum remand period and decreases the time for appeals. So far so good. But the amendment also proposes to reverse the burden of proof, making it the defendant's responsibility to prove his innocence rather than the prosecution's job to establish guilt. Other changes include making witness testimony to police or military officials admissible evidence. Witnesses will not have to be produced in court, depriving the defense of a chance at cross examination and giving officials plenty of leeway to coerce witnesses and even fabricate testimony. If the amendment passes, officials will also be able to conduct searches without the supervision of respectable members of the community making it easier for them to plant evidence.

All of this is tantamount to depriving the defendant of his right to a fair trial. The government can surely tighten the law but it cannot stack the deck in its favor. Not only will such an attempt sully the trials but it will give the state free license to ride roughshod over citizens' rights in the future too. We all want to see the Taliban get their just desserts but it has to be done the right way. Plus, with so many militants in custody, it shouldn't be too hard for the state to cut deals with some underlings to strengthen their cases against the bigwigs. So get to work, government, and don't subvert our rights in the process.

1 comment:

Rabia said...

yeah, I think the idea of putting the onus on proving innocence on the defendant is a bad idea. Really, talk about going from one extreme to the other!