There is widespread fear that Imran Khan government will misuse the economic terrorism bill to subdue the Opposition.
In Pakistan, the military-backed Imran Khan government is facing the heat both at the domestic and foreign policy fronts. The dwindling economy and the recent rift with Saudi Arabia are one of many policy blunders of the Imran Khan government. Saudi Arabia has blocked deferred payments on oil purchases and forced early repayment of $1 billion out of a $3 billion loan. Islamabad repaid the loan after borrowing it on short notice from China. However, instead of redressing these setbacks, Prime Minister Khan has decided to wage a two-front war against the opposition in the country. In the process, the Khan government is weakening the already fragile democracy in the country.
On one hand, the government has reintroduced critical FATF-related the Anti-money laundering (Second Amendment Bill) or “economic terrorism” bill that the Opposition claims might be used to crack down on its political workers and detain them for a period of up to six months. After being passed by the National Assembly, the Anti-money laundering (Second Amendment Bill) was rejected by the 104-member Senate where the Opposition is strong. Now, the bill will be taken up at the joint session of the two Houses. At the same time, the Khan government has initiated corruption probes against the leaders of the two big Opposition parties, PML(N) and PPP.
Previously, on 30 July 2020, Pakistan Senate had passed the Anti-terrorism Act (Amendment) Bill, 2020 to satisfy the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The bill was passed after the Khan government agreed to drop the “economic terrorism” aspect of the bill amidst huge opposition in the Senate and the lower house. There has been widespread fear among the Opposition members and civil society groups that the government will misuse the “economic terrorism” bill to subdue the Opposition in the country.
The “economic terrorism” bill has touched a raw nerve in Pakistan. The bill enhances the applicability of the ATA in cases of transfer of money through informal channels. At the same time, it gives broad powers to law enforcement personnel to keep the accused under detention for three months, extendable up to another three months. Pakistan’s poor human rights records—“enforced disappearances”, previous misuse of Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to suppress any kind of dissent and rights-based movements—created a fear among the Opposition parties with regard to the draconian clauses in the bill that may lead to its potential misuse.
The PTI has repeatedly promised to criminalize the practice of “enforced disappearances”, which has become a highly emotive issue in Pakistan and a cause of major embarrassment for the state at the global platform. Contradicting its previous assurances, the Khan government’s reintroduction of the “economic terrorism bill” with draconian detention clauses ensures that enforced disappearances are here to stay in Pakistan and that too with a legal cover-up.
Enforced disappearances have been reported since the 1970s. There have been more than 7,000 cases of enforced disappearances in FATA. Since 1986, nearly 20,000 MQM workers have been arrested in Sindh. the crackdown on MQM 2013 onwards, resulting in enforced disappearances, had more than 130 political workers and 76 extra-judicial killings. In Balochistan, though, arrests are seldom made under the Anti-Terrorism Act or other laws, but extrajudicial enforced disappearances are the norm. There are more than 22,000 Baloch missing persons.
Balochistan is rocked by back to back protests over the killing of the mother of a child, Bramsh, in front of her eyes, that injured her as well, and that of Hayat Baloch in front of his parents. The protests are on a scale unseen after the 2014 Long March led by Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed Baloch. The protests not only highlight the brazenness of the extrajudicial killings, but also demand release of the missing persons.
In Pakistan, the military-backed Imran Khan government is also using corruption charges for political witch-hunt in exactly the same way that the military orchestrated it against Nawaz Sharif. The authors spoke to Sharmila Farooqi, PPP leader and former advisor to the Chief Minister of Sindh, who said that Imran Khan’s main forte in the last two years has been the reeling hatred and political victimisation of its political opponents. He is using state institutions for political witch-hunts and is gagging all those who show him his true face. The faulty and stark one-sided so-called accountability process has been the subject of severe criticism not only by the highest judicial forum in the country, but also human rights watch. The flimsy cases against former President Zardari (of PPP) are a testimony of how the Opposition in Pakistan is stifled for exposing the incompetence and corruption of Imran Khan’s two-year tenure.
Pakistan is in a situation internationally where it has only two backers—China (as a source of funds) and Turkey (as a diplomatic backer). By tilting towards Turkey and criticising Saudi Arabia’s leadership at OIC on the issue of Kashmir, Islamabad has already alienated Riyadh, a principal source of funds for Pakistan’s weak economy.
Domestically, the corruption probe against the Opposition leaders by the Imran Khan government would generate applause among his core supporters. However, by trying to crack down on its Opposition and activists it would only trigger massive protests. Pakistan is probably at its weakest and it would get further weak unless course correction is done by the Imran Khan government and his military backers.
Dr Yatharth Kachiar is a Research Associate at Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) with a focus on the AF-Pak region. She also holds a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She can be reached at @YKachiar on Twitter. Aveek Sen works on cybersecurity and the geopolitics of India’s neighbourhood focusing on PAI and Bangladesh. Find him on Twitter @aveeksen.