414 Terror Suspects in Pak Acquitted out of 559

LAHORE: As many as 271 terrorism cases of the 559 that were decided in 2012 by the Pakistan’s anti terrorism courts (ATCs) in the Punjab province had to be dismissed and the accused acquitted because the witnesses recanted.

Of the 559, convictions were secured in 145 cases, according to official figures reported Express Tribune on Monday.

A total of 414 cases ended in the acquittal of the accused; in 124 of the cases the suspects were acquitted on ‘merits of the case’ and in 19 the parties reached a compromise.

When asked to explain how a compromise could be reached with parties charged or convicted under the said act – since the crimes committed are against the state –, Chief Prosecutor Chaudhry Muhammad Jahangir said that there were instances in which complainants were private parties and not the state. Such cases are usually registered under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code (murder) along with section 7 of Anti Terrorism Act (ATA). When complainant(s) reach a compromise with the accused, then the respective ATCs let the accused go, taking the view that the main offence was under Section 302 of PPC, which is compoundable, said Jahangir, adding that in most such cases ATCs also declare that sections of the Anti Terrorism Act do not apply.

Khurram Khan, a deputy prosecutor general, attributed the large number of recanting witnesses to “fear, threats and out of court settlements”. Though he was quick to add that charges under the act are non-compoundable, parties do compromise, especially in murder cases. “Since the court does not allow it, witnesses resile,” he said.

Witnesses have a high rate of recanting because of fear or threats in kidnapping for ransom cases, Khan says. “Very few people come forward. Since we don’t have a witness protection programme, they change their statements,” he says.

When it comes to high profile cases or terrorism attacks, it is usually the police that are the complainants. When they are threatened, says Khan, they give statements contradicting their earlier statements. This results in concessions to or acquittal of the accused.

PAST RECORD:

In August 2011, the US State Department released its 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism in which Pakistan was criticised as being “plagued by an acquittal rate of approximately 75 per cent” and a legal system “almost incapable of prosecuting suspected terrorists”, according to The Telegraph.

Syed Ejaz Hussain, a former DIG with the Counter Terrorism Department, in November 2011 presented a paper Why Do Terrorism Cases Fail in Court? An Empirical Analysis at the American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting in Washington DC.

The paper analysed 178 of judgments between 1990 and 2009. A total of 311 cases were decided in the ATCs. In 231 (74%) cases, trial courts acquitted the suspects. Though Hussain noted that “the courts, [in] almost all cases, used a combination of reasons to acquit the accused,” he identified three main reasons for the high acquittal rate: defects in the registration of cases, defective investigations, and defects at the prosecution stage. The third reason includes witnesses becoming hostile (giving statements that do not help the prosecution case), not appearing for evidence, resiling or changing their statements.

According to the paper, it is “the fear of terrorists among witnesses and the prosecution which led parties to compromise, witnesses to become hostile, or resile in courts or not come for recording evidence at all.” Of the 231, in 86 cases witnesses became hostile, in 48 no witnesses showed up to record evidence, in another 48 the witnesses resiled or compromised with the other party, and in 23 witnesses changed their statements.

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