IN Pakistan’s security situation, there are no simple answers. On the one hand there is the challenge of apprehending militants under circumstances that make the gathering of evidence and eyewitness accounts complicated, to say the least. Then, the crimes for which such people are being pursued are generally so heinous, and the terrorism network so strong, that the possibility of pressure being brought to bear, directly or indirectly, on witnesses and prosecution or judicial personnel cannot be ruled out. Yet, the importance of following the law and due process cannot be overstated. Special times, it has been argued, require special provisions of the law, and into this category falls perhaps the Investigation for Fair Trial Bill, 2012, which passed unanimously through the Senate on Friday, having earlier been cleared by the National Assembly.
The bill authorises the government to tap, under certain circumstances, into private communication between people — phone calls, emails, text messages etc — and renders it admissible in court. The hope, obviously, is that this strengthening of the prosecution’s hands will help improve the country’s currently abysmal conviction rate, which is one of the main obstacles to controlling terrorism. While the move must be welcomed, then, it must be with caution. Opponents of the move argue that there is great scope in it to be misused, particularly in view of the intelligence agencies’ history of involvement in manipulating political outcomes. The provisions do build in some safety mechanisms against such abuse, and specify that the legislation should be used for the purposes of counterterrorism and that information can be gathered under it after a warrant has been issued by a sessions and district judge in his chambers. Nevertheless, great caution and discretion must be urged on all quarters. True, in the post-9/11 world, several countries have come up with communications-interception legislation — but there too they were grudgingly received, with reservations expressed about the loss of civil liberties. Pakistan needs a better framework of laws to turn the security situation around; but it must stay on the side of the angels while devising one.