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Pakistan's Terrorism Courts Undermined By No-Show Witnesses

An antiterrorism court adjourned a hearing against militant leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad (front, center) after a key witness failed to appear in court in Peshawar on November 15.
An antiterrorism court adjourned a hearing against militant leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad (front, center) after a key witness failed to appear in court in Peshawar on November 15.
One of Pakistan's biggest problems in the fight against terrorism was on full, disquieting view this month.

It's the challenge of getting witnesses to appear at the trials of terrorism suspects.

This time, the man on trial was Maulana Sufi Muhammad, once famous for sending thousands of volunteers from Pakistan's tribal region to Afghanistan to fight the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Muhammad is also the founder of Tehreek-e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM), a Pakistani militant organization that was declared a terrorist outfit and banned in 2002.

But those activities are not why Muhammad is back in court now. These days he faces 10 assorted terrorism charges. And on November 14, the Antiterrorism Court in Peshawar was to deliver a verdict regarding one of the most serious: his suspected involvement in an attack on a police station in Kabal in the Swat district in 2009.

However, the verdict was never delivered despite the fact that the court convened on schedule in the safety of the city's central jail, where it meets due to security concerns. The reason for no verdict: the failure of a key witness to appear.

The key witness did not appear for the same reason the court meets inside the heavily guarded jail. He was concerned for his personal safety in the high-profile case, so he became "non-available."

That term "non-available" has become a byword for witnesses in terrorism trials in Pakistan, and the result is usually the same. Trials must be postponed repeatedly to the point that they never reach a conclusion, verdicts and punishments are not handed down, and suspects go free for lack of evidence.

Law officials do not hide their impatience with this reality.

As the law minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Barrister Arshad Abdullah, told Radio Mashaal this month, it's a fact that judges, prosecutors, police, investigators, and witnesses are all scared by militants and receive threats from time to time.

But there is little the courts can do except order the frightened witnesses to appear next time and hope they do.

That's what happened on November 14 in Maulana Sufi Muhammad's trial. The court adjourned with a ruling that the witness must be produced in next hearing, scheduled for November 28.

Whether the witness will in fact ever show up is anybody's guess. But if precedent is any guide, odds are that he won't.

Law Minister Abdullah said that 28 terrorists had so far been tried in the civilian courts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, but all were freed by courts due to the "non-availability" of evidence or other loopholes in the criminal justice system.

Nationwide, the situation is much the same. Interior Minister Rahman Malik told the National Assembly in August that in the last three years, security agencies had arrested 3,143 suspected terrorists. Not one of them has been convicted.

Is there an answer? The government has said it will look to plug "loopholes" in the existing criminal justice system and try to improve the collection of evidence that can be used to prosecute terrorist suspects.

But the problem of getting witnesses to feel confident enough about their security to risk appearing in court is a deeper issue that goes to the heart of Pakistan's struggle with terrorism today.

Until Pakistan cracks down on militant groups enough to turn the tide in the war on terrorism, ordinary people are likely to remain "non-available."

-- Majeed Babar