Pakistan Terror Prosecutors Beg for Defense

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Fareed Khan / AP

Pakistani security officials stand guard near alleged militants covered under a sheet outside a court in Karachi on Nov. 11, 2010

The two male defendants shuffle into the cramped, decrepit courtroom in handcuffs and are ushered behind a waist-high, rickety wooden railing at the back of the tiny room into the dock within spitting distance of the lawyers' cheap Formica desks. An unarmed policeman sits with them, but that's little comfort to Mobashir Mirza, the state-appointed special public prosecutor in this, Karachi's Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) 3.

He has been verbally and physically threatened in court by defendants, alleged members of the Taliban and other proscribed groups, most of them accused of murder and kidnapping. He routinely gets death threats on his cell phone, warnings to "not produce the evidence" against certain defendants. Once, he says, a defendant told him that he knew how many windows there were in his apartment and how many children he had. "I am an easy target," says Mirza, 46.

But Mirza and Mohammad Khan Buriro, 48, his counterpart in ATC 1 (ATC 2 has been vacant for more than a year), have had enough of their particular occupational hazard. They want the government to provide them with security, as stipulated in Section 21 of Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Act (1997), or they won't try any more terrorism cases. "Our lives are at stake," says Mirza.

In many ways, so too is the city of Karachi's legal fight against terrorism. Karachi's court system is overburdened by a high acquittal rate (in 40% of Mirza's cases, the accused walks), largely due to witness intimidation, poor police work and corruption. The problems are common to the dozens of ATCs across the country. A recent paper produced for the U.S.-based East-West Center said that from January to October 2010, of the 1,324 cases scheduled for trial in ATCs in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, "in 306 cases the accused were freed when witnesses rescinded their testimonies; in 372 other cases, the accused reached a compromise with the prosecutors." The paper said that across the system, "corruption is rampant, state prosecutors have few resources, and there are significant delays in cases going to trial."

Anand Hotwani, an elegant, white-haired judge with a pencil mustache who presides over Karachi's ATC 3, says lack of evidence is the biggest obstacle to convictions. "The police aren't properly trained, paid or equipped. There's a weakness in the investigations," he says from his sparsely furnished chamber next door to the courtroom. "We are giving [defendants] the benefit of the doubt, and they are being acquitted."

Mohammad Babar, a police inspector posted at Karachi's Anti–Violent Crime Cell, doesn't deny the judge's point but says he can do only so much with the limited resources he's allotted. A tall, striking figure in his navy and beige police uniform, the 34-year veteran of the force says his main difficulty is that he's given only 14 days and up to $230 to investigate a case. "Fourteen days is sufficient time for only a single case," he says from the dusty grounds outside the court, but he's usually juggling four or five at a time. "There's a heavy load on my head and that of other police officers."

The financial constraint doesn't help either. A single DNA test (which must be done in the capital, Islamabad, because there is no facility in Karachi) can eat up his entire budget for one case. "It's a fixed amount," Babar says. Mirza, the lawyer, interjects. "Yes, but what is actually being paid to you?" he asks, suggesting that the allotted budget is not paid in full and that officers must make do with what the government gives them. The policeman merely smiles.

Delays in the antiterrorism court system are commonplace and may become more so if Mirza and Buriro follow through on their threat to stop work. There are more than 90 cases pending in ATC 3 alone. In mid-November the two lawyers lodged their seventh formal petition for a security detail. Shortly after, Mirza and Buriro — who are the only state prosecutors trying terrorism cases in this violence-convulsed city, the country's largest and its commercial hub — refused to prosecute two cases. One involved alleged members of the Taliban who attacked a police investigator, the other suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers implicated in the kidnapping and murder of a man who ran a fuel-tanker service for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Both trials were adjourned as a result.

The government is more interested in fighting terrorism through military means — and, some human-rights groups contend, extrajudicial killings — than through the courts, the lawyers say, on the basis of the meager resources they have been allocated. Their shared "office" is a run-down room adjacent to the dilapidated house turned courtroom that is ATC 3. The grubby cream-colored paint is peeling off the walls, revealing a pistachio undercoat. There are several broken pink plastic chairs and a few cheap desks, but the office has no telephone, no computer and, although there are two sockets for neon strip lighting, no bulbs. The prosecutors must pay for their own stationery and photocopying and are provided with a motorbike — not a car — for transport. "Two or three times, we moved to tender our resignations, but the higher authorities said, If you are going to resign, we will write a note that you are incompetent," says Mirza. "We are trapped here."

The province's prosecutor general, Shahadat Awan, says that the lawyers' demands for security are "justified" but that the police don't have the manpower to protect them. Even Judge Hotwani, who is provided with an armed escort when he travels to and from court, says he doesn't feel safe. "We should be given proper security," he says.

It's easy to see why. ATC 3, which is adjacent to a dry port full of shipping containers, is hardly a fortress. Two armed policemen guard the busy street outside the rusty gray gate at the entrance. Several other officers lounge around in the garden outside the courtroom. The defendants are penned in a 10-ft.-high (3 m) outdoor chain-link enclosure open to the elements and to the sky. The dry port's fence serves as one wall. "Terrorists involved in heinous offenses should not be brought to the courts but [should be tried] through video or inside the jail," Buriro says as he walks past the holding pen. Mirza agrees. "Only God will guide and protect us," he says, "because there are no facilities provided by the authorities."