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Truth or reconciliation?
By Huma Yusuf
Monday, 24 Aug, 2009 | 07:39 AM PST

It is unfortunate that Pakistan has never been able to learn from past mistakes. Before cracking down on militancy, we vacillated between negotiations and operations. Now that the operation in Malakand is wrapping up, we once again find our authorities going back and forth on post-conflict options.

Mixed messages regarding the fate of hundreds of militants — both high-profile commanders and Taliban foot soldiers — apprehended during the course of the conflict have been particularly frequent in recent weeks. So, government, what’s it going to be: truth or reconciliation?

In an opinion piece in The New York Times in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, President Asif Zardari wrote, ‘Pakistan is committed to the pursuit, arrest, trial and punishment of anyone involved in these heinous attacks…. Pakistan will take action against the non-state actors found within our territory, treating them as criminals, terrorists and murderers.’

Though penned in an India-specific context, these words imply that the government has a clear stance on how to deal with militants: eliminate them in the battlefield or drag them to anti-terrorism courts (ATC) where they would probably be sentenced to life imprisonment or capital punishment.

This stance was mobilised recently when an ATC in Mingora summoned Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban commander in Swat, along with 10 other militants. If Fazlullah and his supporters did not appear to defend terror charges against them in a week, the court planned to initiate a hearing in absentia under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

But earlier this month, Interior Minister Rehman Malik tuned in on a different note. He urged militants to surrender their arms and ‘say goodbye to terrorism,’ suggesting that those who swore off terrorism would be dealt with ‘leniently.’ By suggesting that militants may be granted amnesty and allowed to reintegrate into society, Malik floated the option of reconciliation.

This contradiction is not surprising, for it echoes the confusion recently expressed by western government officials on how to deal with regional militancy. US and UK officials emphasised that no long-term success against terrorism would be possible without talking to moderate Taliban and encouraging them to participate in the political process. At the same time, the US has stepped up drone attacks on this side of the border and is not-so-gently urging our army to move troops into the Waziristans.

While confusion reigns, lashkars across the Frontier province are taking matters into their own hands. Recent allegations that security forces dumped slain militants’ bodies in mass graves have highlighted the possibility that this was the work of pro-government lashkars.

In Mardan, lashkars have openly declared that they will counter kidnappings for ransom by kidnapping residents of villages with militant connections. If the government does not articulate a coherent plan for dealing with known or suspected militants in a post-conflict context, locals will begin to dole out justice on their own terms. Such practices will ensure that the Malakand division remains a lawless region — beyond government writ, but in a different incarnation.

To avoid this, the government must first choose between a policy of truth or reconciliation. If militants are to be brought to justice for their actions, the government should stop dangling the carrot of ‘leniency.’ It should instead announce detention protocols detailing where militants will be held, for how long and whether they will be interrogated for intelligence purposes. The government should also clarify what sort of trial militants can expect under the ATA. It is only by clearly mapping prosecution protocol that the government can save itself from subsequent accusations of human rights violations (this, at least, we should have learnt from the follies of our western friends).

Publicly opting for either truth or reconciliation will also determine how the authorities engage with militants in detention. After all, it was while serving a six-year jail term for recruiting ‘jihadis’ that the Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Shariat Mohammadi’s Maulana Sufi Mohammad emerged as a friend of the government. If the plan is to keep militants in custody just long enough to win them over from the dark side of the force — but not reform, disarm or prosecute them — the Pakistani public deserves to know.

If, however, the government is truly committed to punishing the militants, somebody needs to assess the capabilities of the ATC infrastructure. Funnelling hundreds of suspected militant through the parallel courts will require financial investment, inter-provincial coordination and appropriate human resource allocation. An overburdened ATC system will defy the purpose of speedy justice for ‘heinous’ crimes.

Moreover, numerous militant trials will no doubt expand the ATC system. On this point, we should tread cautiously, since ATCs on some level threaten the independence of the judiciary because they are beholden to the executive and include military personnel on their benches. Prioritising ATCs over regular courts could, in the long run, further undermine Pakistan’s judiciary.

And then there’s the problem of evidence. Despite his public anti-state antics, Sufi Mohammad and his sons are being held under the Maintenance of Public Order Act. If we consider our prime minister’s advice to only do that which is ‘doable,’ it makes little sense to flood the legal system with terrorism cases in which guilt is difficult to prove.

In light of this, I suspect the government will opt for a mid-ground, whereby Taliban foot soldiers — who were wooed to militancy by cash and have little evidence of anti-state activity against them — are granted amnesty while hard-core terrorists, prominent commanders and militant financiers are prosecuted.

Even in this scenario, a transparent system is a must. The time is now ripe for the government to establish a panel resembling South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — comprising government officials, army officers, local tribal elders, human rights advocates, anti-militancy clerics, police officials, aid workers etc. — to decide who should go scot-free and who should face trial.

Without establishing systems that facilitate justice and peace, the government is simply ensuring that people throughout the Frontier province will be settling vendettas for decades to come.

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