Keep terror outfits away from elections

Three years ago, after the Army Public School (APS) attack, Pakistan’s civil and military leadership vowed to ‘avenge’ the blood of innocent Pakistanis by taking concrete steps aimed at elimination of terrorism and extremism. Regret was expressed about the flawed policies of the past and promises were made to carry out non-discriminatory action against terrorists and their apologists. It was announced that the policy of distinguishing between terrorists on their status as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ would be put to rest. A comprehensive National Action Plan (NAP) detailing steps needed to eliminate terrorism was unanimously agreed upon by the civil and military leadership. As the nation mourned the blood of innocent schoolchildren, while remembering countless other victims, a new road-map for fighting the menace of terrorism was chalked out with a resolve to implement it in letter and spirit.

Three years later, not only have the promises of adopting a zero tolerance policy against terrorism been forgotten, but terrorist organisations are also being given an open field to operate in what seems to be a bid to ‘mainstream’ them. Banned terror outfits continue to enjoy impunity, despite Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to escape Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklisting.

On Wednesday, head of banned sectarian organisation Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) Ahmed Ludhianvi was taken off Fourth Schedule of Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). His assets were unfrozen and travel restrictions removed. What is even more shocking is that the development came the same day Pakistan announced a 26-point plan against financing of terrorist groups in order to avoid FATF blacklisting. Some news reports suggested that the ban on ASWJ has also been lifted, but Punjab caretaker interior minister has denied removal of the ban on the proscribed outfit. Nevertheless, giving relief to a known criminal weeks before elections indicates that the deep state is up to no good.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) recently finalised the list of candidates cleared to contest the general elections. It is concerning that among those who have been given a clean chit are extremist elements associated with the banned ASWJ. These candidates are contesting from a new platform called Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party to avoid being questioned about the ‘banned’ status of their outfit. But the ECP does not find it problematic that members of banned outfits are eyeing seats in National and Provincial Assemblies using a different name for their actual groups. That our electoral system has failed to track such blatant dishonesty says a lot about how ‘free’ and ‘fair’ the upcoming elections will be. It also goes to show that action against individuals with terror and extremist links is not a priority for those responsible to oversee and conduct the general elections. One of the points of the NAP states that banned outfits “will not be allowed to operate with a different name”. Yet these outfits are not only operating with new names, but are also aspiring to reach the Parliament.

A sectarian terror organisation, ASWJ is included in the list of proscribed organisations formed by National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA). ASWJ can be described as the political wing of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an anti-Shia militant organisation that has claimed responsibility for several small and large-scale attacks across the country, mainly targeting the Shia community. The LeJ also recently pledged allegiance to global terror group Islamic State (IS) and the two groups have jointly carried out a number of bombings in the past few years. LeJ has mainly been involved in attacks on Shia community across the country for decades, but recently the anti-Shia militant group seemed to have expanded its operations to target non-Shias as well.

In October 2016, a police academy in Quetta came under attack, killing 61 young cadets. LeJ claimed responsibility for the attack. In a separate attack on the lawyers fraternity in Quetta that took place in August 2016, over 70 lawyers lost their lives. Both LeJ and IS had claimed responsibility for the incident. This year, in addition to continuing its actions against the persecuted Shia-Hazaras of Quetta, the group targeted another vulnerable religious minority. The Christian community of Quetta fell victim to a bombing incident at a local church in April. 15 members of the community were killed and LeJ accepted responsibility once again. Hazara-Shias of Quetta have been on the receiving end of targeted killing and mass bombings from LeJ for far too long (and their plight remains under-reported), but now Christians in the city also live under constant threat and many have claimed that they are being forced out of the city.

Among those cleared by ECP to contest the elections are extremist elements associated with banned terrorist organisations. These candidates are contesting from a new platform to avoid being questioned about their ‘banned’ status

ASWJ’s relation with LeJ is hardly a secret, but it is still pertinent to mention, for those unaware of the issue at hand, that ASWJ leaders have supported and justified the actions of LeJ and other terror groups on multiple occasions.

The same ASWJ has fielded its candidates for various National and Provincial Assembly seats across the country from a new platform. And instead of doing its job – ECP made a mockery of the Constitution as well as NAP – by allowing terror suspects and criminals to contest the elections.

ASWJ Sindh leader Aurangzeb Farooqi who has indulged in hate speech against the Shia community and called for their public murder several times was also cleared by the ECP. In 2016, Farooqi was named in an FIR registered after the murder of Karachi-based Shia activist Khurram Zaki, but Farooqi did not declare this information while filing his nomination papers. Some members of the civil society in Karachi approached Election Tribunal, challenging the nomination papers of Farooqi and drew the attention of the authorities towards the fact that the candidate did not disclose his criminal history by concealing the FIR. But the Election Tribunal on Monday dismissed the request on grounds that concealing information does not merit a disqualification.

The tribunal’s verdict is yet another reminder of the impunity enjoyed by sectarian terrorists.

Meanwhile, another Election Tribunal in Islamabad has disqualified former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for ‘withholding information’ in his nomination papers. It is bizarre that candidates are being disqualified for petty reasons while extremists like Ahmed Ludhianvi and Aurangzeb Farooqi remain untouchable despite misleading the ECP.

While the ECP and election tribunals have disqualified politicians for hiding dual nationalities, submitting fake documents and unpaid dues among other misdoings, individuals involved in terrorism – which is a much bigger crime – have been given a free hand. It appears as if the law does not apply to them.

Moreover, most members of the ASWJ aka Rah-e-Haq Party including Aurangzeb Farooqi whose nomination papers have been accepted by the ECP are listed on the Fourth Schedule. Individuals whose names are placed on the Fourth Schedule (a watch-list of the Anti-Terrorism Act) are barred from visiting public places or addressing public meetings without obtaining written permission from the local police. Their movement is restricted due to suspected involvement in terrorism, incitement to violence and they are considered a security threat by the state. It is the failure of the country’s electoral system that such people were allowed to submit nomination papers in the first place.

Participation of banned terror outfits’ members in the general elections is not only the violation of Constitution and National Action Plan, but also puts the security of the general public at risk. It is therefore imperative for the authorities to wake up and act before it’s too late.
By: Ailia Zehra

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