Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Monday delivered a landmark verdict in the case of 23 workers of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) and Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) arrested in the federal capital on January 28 on charges of sedition (124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code) and terrorism (Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act).
The activists were arrested for holding a peaceful protest demonstration in front of the National Press Club against the arrest of PTM chief Manzoor Pashteen a few day earlier. Just when the demonstration was about to end and the small crowd of activists started melting away the police swooped in, laid barbed wires around them and began shoving them into prison vans standing nearby.
During the hearing, Justice Athar Minallah said that sedition law was the legacy from the colonial era and that it had never been invoked against anyone in the federal capital. In a remarkable Op-ed published in daily Dawn on the same day, Reema Omer said that the colonial era sedition law had been repealed by Britain a decade ago. Quoting from the speech made in British Parliament at the time she said that “arcane offence” of sedition was repealed because “it had been used by other countries to perpetuate similar laws to suppress dissent and press freedoms.”
To their credit, the district administration and Islamabad police acknowledged that it was wrong to slam the offence of sedition and, therefore, it had been deleted accordingly.
But what about terrorism charges? Those present in the courtroom were surprised when the court was informed that while sedition charges had been dropped, the terrorism offence could not be removed because it had been added on the observations of the Additional District and Session Judge during a hearing earlier on the bail plea of the accused.
The CJ was clearly miffed. “We will get to the bottom of this case,” he remarked. “How could you question someone’s patriotism? Do you think constitutional courts will shut their eyes on a matter like this?” he remarked. He gave the district administration a week’s time to consult chief of Islamabad police and come up with a report on the incident.
While dismissing bail applications the ADSJ had observed: “I have no hesitation to hold that it is a case in which Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) is attracted by all force, hence, this court lacks jurisdiction to entertain and decide the bail applications.” He also noted, “the allegations were raised and speeches were made against Pakistan and its army as sufficiently revealed in the subject FIR and as per my perception it definitely amounts to threat to coerce and intimidate the government and the same has seemingly created a sense of fear and insecurity among the public.”
Justice Minallah, however, declared that the ADSJ “appears to have exceeded jurisdiction by making observations…without having regard for the recently enunciated law by the august Supreme Court regarding scope of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997.” He also admitted the bail pleas.
A couple of facts are noteworthy. The National Press Club Islamabad has long been used by human rights activists for demonstrations in support of human rights causes but not once have the law enforcement agencies got into an overdrive and swooped down on the protestors as they did on January 28. The reason was obvious: any expression of solidarity with the PTM and demanding release of Manzoor Pashteen is unacceptable and the state agencies will go to any lengths to stifle such voices.
An early sign of this impatience was betrayed when sometime back the DG ISPR warned the PTM that their time was up. In cracking down on PTM supporters on January 28, state agencies did not realise that the government, through its defence minister, had already offered talks to the PTM which the latter had also indirectly welcomed. It is, therefore, hard to avoid suspicion that the crackdown was ordered not by the civilian government but by state agencies. Obsession with the PTM did not warrant a pause, even for promised negotiations.
Why this impatience? The PTM and Manzoor Pashteen have been articulating demands that are a nightmare for the security establishment; setting up of a Truth Commission to find out how a generation of tribal youth were cheated in the name of war on terror and ‘strategic land,’ recognition of the rights of locals over mineral resources, disbanding the opaque internment centres, clearance of landmines and an end to enforced disappearances, sending troops back into the barracks and allowing police to do normal policing.
The discomfiture of state agencies is further compounded by the increasing appeal of the PTM narrative, its stubborn rejection of violence and equally stubborn refusal to be browbeaten or seek self aggrandizement at least for now. Attempts to down play the relevance of PTM to Pashtun issues have failed. The puerile reasoning by interior minister to the BBC that since PTI had two thirds majority in the province it showed that Imran Khan was more popular in tribal areas than PTM has been greeted only with jeers.
Chief Justice Athar Minallah seems determined to “reach to the bottom.” The admission by the police and administration that it was wrong to slam sedition charges and dissociating themselves from including terrorism charges in the FIR might provide useful clues. A forensic audit of the phones of the two officers who were reportedly constantly seeking instructions from some unknown persons during the crackdown might hold the key to unmask the people behind it all.
The writer is a former senator