The Nawaz Sharif government has armed itself with yet another imaginative law, enabling it to declare virtually any Pakistani a terrorist. Under the new Anti-Terrorist (Amendment) Ordinance promulgated on 27 April as a presidential decree, "…go slows, lock-outs…distributing publishing or pasting of a handbill or making a graffiti or wall-chalking intended to create unrest or fear or create a threat to the security of law and order or to incite the commission of (certain) offence(s)…", all fall under the term "civil commotion", the punishment for which is up to seven years' rigorous imprisonment or fine, or both.

The new law is the latest in a series of ventures undertaken by the Pakistan Muslim League government to impose 'quick justice' on the hapless nation. Almost obsessed with the idea of "justice at the doorstep", the prime minister of Pakistan has been systematically introducing quick-fixes to the judicial system despite the many setbacks he has suffered.

Soon after coming to power, Sharif began holding a Moghul-style open court outside his Lahore residence where he listened to people's complaints every Sunday and passed urgent orders. The images of a benevolent ruler directly dispensing justice to the masses were given much play by the official electronic media even as newspapers carried stories of miserable people who could not get justice even after travelling hundreds of kilometres, sometimes spending fortunes. However, the prime minister soon lost interest in his court and after a desperate supplicant committed suicide by setting himself ablaze in front of his residence, the court was shifted to another area where it continues under the supervision of a provincial legislator as a mere ghost of its earlier magnificence.

Next, in September 1997, came the introduction of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which aimed to provide speedy justice in terrorism-related incidents. Cases, mainly involving activists of ethnic parties in Karachi and sectarian groups in Punjab, had been dragging on in the courts for years. Neither did the police seem interested in serious investigations, nor were the judges keen on dispensing with these cases, arguably for fear of reprisals. Sharif said that "the terrorists are either released on bail or acquitted" and declared that he wanted such cases to be decided within hours. However, instead of reforming the investigating agencies or the judiciary, he used the Act to set up a parallel system of justice which led to a serious conflict with the superior judiciary that resulted in the storming of the Supreme Court building by activists of the ruling party and finally in the ouster of the chief justice in early 1998.

Sharif succeeded in setting up his favourite anti-terrorist courts (ATCs). Sixteen such courts were set up in Sindh and Punjab provinces and more than 1500 cases were referred to them, including a murder case against opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari

In more than a year and a half of working, these courts have decided only 400 cases. However, most of these decisions have been overturned by the superior courts. It is more than obvious that even the ATCs are helpless, relying, as they have to, on investigations carried out by the extremely criminalised, politicised and corrupt police force

Then, in December 1998, Sharif came up with an even more ingenious solution to the problem of law and order. The Armed Forces (Acting in Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance 1998 was promulgated to set up military courts to hear cases of civilian nature. Legal experts reminded the government that military courts were normally established either during martial law or after wars   to   deal with war crimes and cannot be considered as a substitute to ordinary courts under a democratic dispensation. But Sharif seemed convinced that the norms of justice and civil society must be suspended if the worsening law and order problem was to be brought under control. A number of military courts were set up in Karachi which gave verdiets on numerous cases, including a death sentence to a 13-year-old boy.

On 17 February 1999, the Supreme Court dealt a big blow to Sharif when a nine-member bench of the court unanimously declared that setting up military courts to try civiliaians was unconstitutional and without lawful an The court also provided a mechanism for speedy trial of the cases relating to terrorism by way of which the government was to an earlier Anti-Terrorist Ordinance and come up with a new law to set up a new brand of trial courts that were to work under the supervision of the higher judiciary. But while promulgating the latest law-the Anti-Terrorist (Amendment) Ordinance-the government ignored many of the Supreme Court's directives.

It is clear that the law, especially with the definition provided for "civil commotion", car be misused by the government to tame the unruly opposition. Legal experts say the Ordinance has been so loosely drafted that important terms such as "internal disturbance" and "intended to violate law" is open to the most subjective interpretation by state functionaries. Said Abid Hasan Manto, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, "It brings all legitimate political and trade union activity into definition of civil commotion and thus invades fundamental rights of the citizens."

Political parties have unanimously opposed the law and the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami even held an all-party conference against its promulgation. Former president Farooq Leghari declared: "It is a black law aimed at crushing the opposition and establishing one-party rule in the country." An editorial in the English daily Dawn stated that the law was "in some ways more draconian in sweep than the martial law order and regulations which were aimed at suppressing political activities."

The law is open to challenge in the Supreme Court, a recourse which has yet to be considered seriously by political parties, human rights organisation or the ordinary people. but there is always the possibility that judicial intervention may once again provoke another row with the government. This can only lead to further damage to the judiciary which has already received almost irreparable damage at the hands of a government bent on destroying all democratic institutions.

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Himal Southasian