Pakistani soldiers use metal detectors to clear an area during a military operation against Taliban militants in Miranshah, North Waziristan. (AFP)
Islamabad, July 3: Pakistan’s parliament approved sweeping new powers for the country’s security forces, with an anti-terrorism measure that the government says is needed to combat the Taliban, but that rights activists warned could result in state-sponsored human rights violations.
The Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014 allows the security forces to shoot suspects on sight, arrest suspects without a warrant and withhold information about where detainees are being held or what they are being charged with.
It comes at a time of great public trepidation in Pakistan. The military is engaged in a large-scale offensive against the Pakistan Taliban and allied jihadist groups in the North Waziristan tribal district. Many Pakistanis fear violent militant reprisals in the country’s main cities.
In presenting the measure, one cabinet minister, Zahid Hamid, said it would “send a message that the government stands with the military in the operation against terrorists”.
The bill offers “statutory cover to armed forces which are fighting against the enemies of the country for the revival of peace and stability”, Hamid added.
But rights groups and civil rights activists said the legislation risked curbing civil liberties in a country with an already abysmal record of human rights violations.
“It is an attack on the rights of the people,” said I. A. Rehman, a veteran activist with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “It is very difficult to swallow.”
Military and some civilian leaders have long complained that flaws in the country’s criminal justice system have hampered their ability to fight militant groups.
Militants are rarely convicted in court, often because witnesses refuse to testify or judges are afraid to hear such cases, and there is no witness protection system to speak of.
But the new legislation, critics say, provides legal cover for practices that have more frequently been denounced as human rights abuses and have often embarrassed the military in the news media.