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Supreme Court reserves verdict on what constitutes ‘terrorism’

ISLAMABAD: Supreme Court of Pakistan on Tuesday reserved its verdict on the definition of ‘terrorism’ and what cases could be tried in the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA )1997, ARY News reported.

The seven-member larger bench was formed to settle the question last month by the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mr Justice Asif Saeed Khosa after the court was posed with the question in two different cases Fazal Bashir vs The State and Sibtain vs The State.

The larger bench discussed the ramifications of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 and the “ambiguities” in the law that made its implementation problematic.

The court also deliberated upon whether a settlement between the parties in a ‘terrorism’ case is admissible before the court.

The lawyer representing the government told the court that settlement was not time-barred and it could take place at any time.

To this, the CJP said that the court was concerned with whether there was a room for settlement in a terrorism offence.

“There cannot be a settlement in terrorism offences. The ATA 1997 has no provision for a settlement”, the CJP remarked, adding that the law could not be overlooked just because two parties in a terrorism case had reached a settlement.

The court asked the lawyers present whether a case that has been heard [and decided] could be reopened if new evidence appears or a settlement is reached.

The government lawyer responded that the court could revisit the case to “serve justice”, to which the chief justice responded that “justice” could be done only by remaining within the ambit of the law.

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“The court doesn’t have an authority to make law; provisions [for all these points] can be made only by lawmakers alone”, he remarked.

Chief Justice Khosa, while giving the example of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s case, said that even that case was not reopened even after new evidence had emerged.

“There is only one way for this, that the court itself recommends the country’s president to allow the mercy petition of such a criminal”, said the chief justice.

Remarking on the misuse of ATA 1997, the chief justice said that the said law was “full of ambiguities” and the court would have to interpret the Anti-Terrorism Act broadly.

“It is a broad question what constitutes terrorism”, remarked Justice Mansoor Ali Shah.

The chief justice said that spreading a sense of fear through a planned and coordinated activity was terrorism. “If a crime is carried out with an intention to spread fear, then it’s terrorism”, he said.

Justice Shah said the consequences of the activity wouldn’t necessarily accurately describe what the intentions [of the person carrying out the activity] were.

Chief Justice Khosa, on Justice Shah’s remarks, laid out a hypothetical scenario to further elaborate on the matter.

“If a person’s enemy is standing at a fuel station, and the assassin shoots his enemy, but the bullet, instead of hitting the target, hits the fuel station’s storage, resulting in a huge explosion which kills several people and destroys many vehicles; will this be called terrorism?”, asked the CJP, adding that it was beyond anyone’s capacity to control the consequences of his/her actions.

To this, Justice Shah said if the entire fuel pump was gutted due to the one bullet hitting the storage, would it be tantamount to creating ‘unrest’. “Hence, we cannot judge the intentions by the consequences of actions”, he said.

Justice Ejaz ul Ahsan questioned if it would be called terrorism if a person, with an intention to kill one person, ended up killing 15 others present at the scene [without an intention].

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To this, Justice Shah said that if the murders were planned then this would be terrorism.

The chief justice said that defining what constitutes terrorism was a tricky question and even the United Nations had not reached a conclusion on this.

“Every serious crime is not terrorism, but even the criminal cases were being tried in the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) under the anti-terrorism law”, he regretted.

“Many high profile cases were sent to ATCs just because of the hype on media”, he said.

The court later wrapped up the case and reserved its verdict.

“God willing, we will settle this question of importance and define what is ‘terrorism'”, said the CJP.

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