Pakistan amends anti-terror law amid military offensive

This handout picture released by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on July 1, 2014, shows Pakistani soldiers riding an armoured vehicle during a military operation against Taleban militants in the main town of Miranshah in North Waziristan.
This handout picture released by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on July 1, 2014, shows Pakistani soldiers riding an armoured vehicle during a military operation against Taleban militants in the main town of Miranshah in North Waziristan. -- PHOTO: AFP 

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's parliament amended an anti-terrorism law Wednesday, doubling the maximum prison sentence for those convicted of terror offences and allowing security forces to detain suspects for up to 60 days.

The Pakistani government had faced a battle to enact the tough anti-terror law that rights activists and opposition parties had attacked as repressive.

The Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014 allows security forces to detain suspects for up to 60 days without disclosing their whereabouts or the allegations against them.

It also allows for people who have been found guilty of terror offences to go to jail for 20 years, up from ten.

When the legislation was first introduced as ordinance in April it allowed for 90 days detention, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) and opposition parties criticised.

Security forces had been granted powers to open fire on anyone they see committing or "likely to commit" terror-related offences, but the amendment means now only senior officers can "as a last resort".

Wednesday's amending and approval of the law by the lower house National Assembly came after the upper house Senate passed it the day before.

The law comes as the Pakistani military is engaged in a massive offensive against insurgents in the tribal area of North Waziristan.

The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif introduced the legislation in a bid to curb the violence and instability blighting the nuclear-armed state.

Pakistan has been in the grip of a homegrown Taleban insurgency since 2007, with more than 6,800 people killed in bomb and gun attacks according to an AFP tally.

The nuclear-armed country also faces a violent separatist movement in southwestern Baluchistan province and rising sectarian violence, much of it orchestrated by banned groups such as Laskhar-e-Jhangvi.

Law enforcement agencies and the sclerotic courts system have struggled to make any impact on the violence.

The legislation is aimed at improving Pakistan's security and ensuring speedy convictions.

Pakistan minister Zahid Hamid said the law would also "give statutory cover" to armed forces fighting local and foreign militants in North Waziristan since the operation started in mid-June.

So far, 376 militants and 19 soldiers have been killed in the offensive and nearly 500,000 people have been displaced, according to the military, though with the area off-limits to journalists the number and identity of the dead is impossible to verify.

The nuclear-armed country also faces a violent separatist movement in southwestern Baluchistan province and rising sectarian violence, much of it orchestrated by banned groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.