The Pakistan Army announced today that it arrested 10 militants suspected of involvement in the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who became a celebrity advocate for education after being shot by a Taliban gunman on her way to school.
“The group involved in the attack on Malala Yousafzai has been arrested,” and will be tried in an antiterrorism court, Army spokesman Major Gen. Asim Bajwa told a press conference. He also tweeted that the men were “busted and apprehended by Security forces.”
Pakistan said for two years it was searching for Ms. Yousafzai's attackers after a gunman boarded Malala’s school bus in the Swat Valley on Oct. 9, 2012 and shot her in the head, also injuring two of her classmates.
Yet Pakistan’s troubled justice system, public support for extremism in parts of society, and political timing caused the search to drag on.
Reports from October 2012 show that local police immediately rounded up at least 70 people for questioning – and arrested some -- before releasing them. Pakistani analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi told the Daily Beast at the time that the release of suspects due to lack of evidence was “a routine problem in Pakistan."
"We don’t have proper investigations, our prosecutors are ill-equipped to handle terrorism cases, and there is no system to protect witnesses so no one speaks up.” In addition, says Rizvi, militant groups inspired by religion have support across large segments of Pakistani society. “People don’t want to speak out against these people because they agree with their ideology. In those cases, many witnesses prefer to withhold evidence.”
I. A. Rehman, Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told the Monitor at the time that he was “pleased to see the strong reaction” to the shooting, but that it “was not the first time that extremist militant groups have carried out atrocities” and he feared little would change.
Al Jazeera described the confusion of the early days of the investigation this way:
The investigation into the shooting has become shrouded in mystery, with police officials at each of the local police stations, including the one where the case was first filed, unable to furnish specifics regarding arrests or suspects.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a police officer who was working on the case told Al Jazeera that a special investigation team had been formed, with representatives from each of the local police stations, the public prosecutor’s office and the country’s intelligence services all represented.
He said that dozens of suspects had been rounded up and questioned, and that police were going through mobile phone data and witness testimony in order to narrow down their range of suspects.
Other police officials, however, confirmed that none of the at least 60 suspects who had been questioned by police in Swat had been held after their interrogations.
The timing of today's arrests also coincide with greater involvement by the powerful military. The Army said the capture of the suspects was due to Army, police, and intelligence agency collaboration, according to Pakistan's Express Tribune. According to army spokesman Bajwa, the men were found as part of "Operation Zarb-e-Azb," launched by the military this summer after militants attacked the Karachi Airport in June.
Bajwa also said the arrested men told Mullah Fazlullah, the head of Pakistan’s Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that they were the “mastermind of the attack" on Malala.
For some commentators, like Tunku Varadarajan, research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the reason the arrests were announced today boils down to politics.
Arrest of Malala's persecutors may also provide a welcome distraction from international attention to nearly three weeks of protests in Islamabad, the capital – which has proved an embarrassment for a government trying to gain investment and trust from abroad.