ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After a decade of terrorist attacks, Pakistan is implementing a new legal framework to deal with its growing militant threat — what some are calling a local version of the USA Patriot Act.
The government says the measure will improve an anti-terrorism effort plagued by inefficiency and abuses. At times, security forces have swept up thousands of suspected Islamist militants without charge, outraging human rights activists. When terrorism suspects do go before a judge, however, they are often freed, dismaying Western officials.
“This law is war, declared war, against those who challenge the state,” said Khawaja Zaheer, the senior justice adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “This law is intended to do what should have been done in 2001 or 2002,” in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But in a debate that mirrors the controversy over the USA Patriot Act, activists argue that the new measure will lead to widespread abuses.
“People are already being detained, people are already being kept in internment camps, people are already involuntarily disappeared,” said I.A. Rehman, secretary general of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, an independent Lahore-based body. “The only thing they want to do with this is give even more special powers to security forces to detain.”
For years, Pakistan’s leaders have lurched between tough talk on terrorism and sympathetic outreach to some militant groups. This week Sharif condemned a U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, days before planned talks between the group and the Pakistani government.
Still, with Sharif facing pressure from Western governments to act, he has been quietly building a legal framework that could underpin a potential military offensive against the Taliban should talks fail.
The new ordinance — handed down in mid-October and effective immediately pending a review by Parliament — may first be put to the test in the economic hub of Karachi, where an offensive against criminal gangs and militant groups has netted about 5,000 arrests in the past three months.
The ordinance formally defines an enemy combatant, clarifies the powers of the army to intervene in internal security, establishes new federal courts, offers additional protections to judges, and codifies the use of extended detention.
The measure draws on previous laws, but government officials say it is broader, legalizing detention tactics and other practices that military and intelligence officials have been suspected of using for years. By doing so, Sharif’s government hopes to avoid clashes with a increasingly independent court system.
“The organized mafia is roaming free due to [a] legal vacuum,” Sharif wrote in a letter asking lawmakers to support the plan.
Last year, there were more than 1,577 terrorist attacks in Pakistan, resulting in 2,050 deaths, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. Another group, the South Asia Terrorism Portal, reported 3,007 civilian deaths in Pakistan last year linked to terrorism, and 2,745 through October of this year.
Currently, Pakistan tries all terrorism cases in overburdened local courts, and it can take years to complete such a trial. During a recent meeting at the White House, President Obama asked Sharif why seven Pakistanis suspected in the 2008 Mumbai attacks still haven’t been tried, the prime minister told local reporters.
Sharif didn’t reveal his response to Obama.
In 2010, a U.S. State Department report said 75 percent of terrorism suspects in Pakistani provincial courts were eventually freed. Last year, a local court acquitted four men accused of being part of a 2010 plot to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square. The verdict caused outrage in Washington.
Pakistan is now seeking to establish a federal court system to try some terrorism suspects.
Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s justice secretary, said the new ordinance will lead to a “quick disposal of justice” while also abiding by Pakistan’s constitution.
The measure clarifies that the military, working with police, can make arrests without obtaining a warrant for 20 different crimes, including use of bombs and kidnapping or killing government officials.
Noncitizens accused of crimes against the state can be labeled “enemy aliens” and detained indefinitely, although cases will be reviewed periodically. Pakistani citizens can be held for up to 90 days if there are “grounds to infer” they were “acting in a manner prejudicial to the integrity, security, defense” of the country.
To deter retaliation, judges will be able to hear cases via one-way video monitors, instead of meeting the defendants face-to-face.
“As a citizen of Pakistan, I would have preferred this was done 10 years ago when everyone else around the world responded, but we were not that serious,” Khan said.
But activists are deeply skeptical. They point to a 2009 military campaign in the northwestern Swat Valley that temporarily displaced more than 2 million residents.
The Human Rights Commission said in October that there were still 2,000 men missing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, many of whom it suspects were detained during the military operations in the Swat Valley. Earlier this year, Pakistan’s attorney general said only 700 people were being held in internment centers.
Those detained, and their relatives, say it’s often unclear why people are jailed or where they are held.
Lubna Khan, a homemaker, said she’s been looking for her husband for four years, since he was picked up by authorities as he drove from their farm near Peshawar to Islamabad.
“If he is in the custody of the security agencies, let them admit that so I can relax,” she said. “But no one is saying where he is.”
One 30-year-old man, who asked that he be identified only by his last name of Khan, a common Pakistani surname, said in an interview that he was picked up by officers in plainclothes while riding his motorbike in northwest Pakistan in June. He said he was blindfolded and detained for 25 days without being told why.
“They did not torture me, just kept me alone,” he said.
Activists criticize the new ordinance as having many harsh and ill-defined passages. They note, for example, that it allows security forces to open fire on individuals who are even suspected of preparing to destroy property.
The measure also states that enemy aliens “may be detained by the government for such period as may be determined by it from time to time.”
The 1.5 million to 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan could be especially vulnerable to that provision, activists say, noting that many do not have proper documentation and that the ordinance considers “crossing national boundaries” as “waging war against Pakistan.”
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.