Pakistan police tactics spark ire

A RAND report released last week accuses them of human rights abuses and suggests that the US suspend aid.

Amina Masood Janjua recalls the date as if it were her own name: July 30, 2005 – the day intelligence agents took her husband from a Rawalpindi street. She hasn't heard from him since.

Like hundreds of others, Ms. Janjua has taken to protesting on the streets, bringing international attention to what some say is the dark side of Pakistan's lauded counterterrorism efforts: the arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, of suspects.

"There's no option for me but to protest on the roads. I think in terms of seconds – how long will I be kept from my husband," Janjua says.

As these families wring their hands, developments in Pakistan's court system highlight a different but equally troubling trend. Alleged militants, many considered top Al Qaeda recruits, are being released from jail, their sentences having been overruled – a result, apparently, of Pakistani police resorting to methods of incrimination that don't stand in court.

The two trends show how, a world away from the restive tribal zones where the Taliban hold sway, the war against terrorism may be faltering on another key battleground: within the ranks of the Pakistani police.

"The United States should significantly restructure or even withdraw its assistance to repressive regimes if their internal security agencies fail to improve transparency, human rights practices, and overall effectiveness," reads a RAND Corp. assessment of Pakistani police published last week.

The report's authors, who also evaluated security forces in El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, recommend that the US government should "rethink the type and amount of assistance it provides Pakistan's law enforcement agencies."

Such a change would constitute a significant reversal. Buoyed by tens of millions of dollars in US and other foreign assistance, Pakistan has cracked down on Al Qaeda at a significant cost to law-enforcement lives, rendering more terror suspects to the United States than any other counterterrorism partner, as the RAND report points out.

Searching for the disappeared

But recent critiques claim that those efforts have gone too far.

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday criticized as insufficient efforts by authorities to trace at least 16 people believed to be held by Pakistani intelligence agencies for suspected links with Islamic militants.

Judge Mian Shakirullah Jan, hearing a case brought by relatives of the missing, accused the government of wasting time. He said the efforts of "concerned authorities" to trace the missing "are not satisfactory" and urged them to "speed up." The judge adjourned the case until Jan. 15.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 men have been arrested in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Detained on little or no evidence, none have been formally charged, a flagrant violation of Pakistan's constitution, analysts say.

Pakistan's government dismisses claims of arbitrary arrest. "Yes, some of their relatives are not traceable," says Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao. "But that doesn't mean that the intelligence agencies have custody of them. Some of them have just gone missing, and we're trying to find them."

Most of the cases are kept in the dark, but activists and family members like Janjua have pieced together accounts from a handful of suspects who were freed, including those from 10 prisoners recently released by Supreme Court decree. Those familiar with the cases say the arrested come from all walks of life, rich and poor. A strong sense of religious faith seems to have been their common trait.

Many argue that the arrests have spawned a new level of public rancor against the country's intelligence services, a fount of discontent that militants can draw upon.

"Two or three years back, nobody could openly speak about the [intelligence services]. Now we are speaking out, and people are becoming more brave," says Khalid Khawaja, whose Islamic Center for Research and Defence of Human Rights in Islamabad has negotiated the release of some 20 suspects.

Faltering evidence

But it is not only alleged disappearances that are raising concerns about the war on terrorism.

Even where the police have brought cases against high-profile militants, many trials have collapsed because of flimsy evidence.

Abdul Waheed Katpar, an octogenarian advocate in Karachi, has found a particular stride. In the past five years, he estimates, he has helped overturn almost 100 terrorism-related cases.

His strength, he says, is the weakness of the Pakistani police.

"They do not investigate scientifically, like in England or France. No. 1, they don't know how to do it. No. 2, they're corrupt. And No. 3, they have to bring a case to show they're doing something," the lawyer says.

Assessments from international observers would appear to corroborate Mr. Katpar's claims.

"The police lack basic investigative skills in collecting evidence and following chains of custody, and have few technical resources at their disposal," says the RAND report. "The state has no centralized criminal database, and until recently, no forensic laboratories were available for collecting and assembling evidence against criminal or terrorist suspects."

Pakistani police officials, who will speak only on background, agree that their capabilities are limited. They say that the main difficulty is in bringing credible witnesses to trial. Pakistan has no witness-protection program, so there is little to assuage the public's fear of retribution.

Fears like this underscore the fact that the country's largest cities continue to be centers of militant activity, even though attention in the fight against terror is fixated on the tribal zones bordering Afghanistan.

"[S]ince the Army's 2004 incursions into South Waziristan, the problem has steadily shifted to the country's hinterlands as well as large towns and major cities such as Quetta, Lahore, and especially Karachi," says the RAND report.

"The direction of Washington's counterterrorism assistance has not kept pace with these developments."

Wire services were used in this report.

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