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DAWN Editorials – 23rd March 2016

Pak-India travel regime

AT the highest quarters in both Pakistan and India, it is recognised that despite the weight of history, unless there is peace, development and prosperity in the region will be hard to achieve.

This is the lofty rhetoric. But reality in the down-to-earth details, where it affects ordinary citizens, has different implications.

These relate to pettiness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the visa and travel regimes on both sides. Earlier, India was in the news, when it denied permission to some Pakistan High Commission officials to visit Kolkata to attend the World T-20 Pakistan-India match.

Given that these officials were already in India, it would have been reasonable to expect the courtesy to be extended; but it was not to be. Pakistani officialdom is not much better.

As reported yesterday, an Indian theatre group that was to arrive in Karachi for participation in the International Theatre and Music Festival at the National Academy of the Performing Arts, which receives funding from the federal government, is encountering last-minute delays in receiving visas.

Their performance, scheduled for tonight, has been cancelled pending resolution of the issue.

These are only the most recent of the countless examples where Pakistan and India score points against each other through their travel regimes.

What chances are there for the normalisation of ties when even people such as sports fans, theatre persons, musicians, etc, cannot be tolerated?

For the government to outright deny visas would be unfortunate enough. But much like the fishermen from each other’s territory that Pakistan and India routinely arrest and hold hostage to politics, travel to and within both countries has become a game of stringing applicants along, with meaningless bureaucratic hurdles put down wherever possible.

Further, if persons highly visible in the public domain, such as diplomats and cultural representatives, are treated in this manner, the run-around given to the ordinary can only be imagined. It is time for rationalisation. Pakistan and India cannot continue to pay lip-service to the normalisation of ties while indulging in such pettiness.

Escaping from the law

ONE of the leading causes of lawlessness in the country is the lack of effectiveness of the law-enforcement and criminal justice systems, both interlinked.

Cases routinely go on for abnormally long periods, and much of this is due to lacklustre investigation and prosecution efforts.

As recently reported in this paper, Supreme Court Justice Amir Hani Muslim, monitoring judge of the anti-terrorism courts in Sindh, expressed his displeasure over the fact that there were over 1,600 absconders in 456 cases in Karachi’s ATCs.

Many of these individuals were said to be involved in “heinous and terrorism cases”, with some reportedly linked to political parties, and others to criminal gangs.

The number of absconders in other courts is even larger. Some of the absconders were out on bail, while others had not been arrested yet. Justice Muslim was rightly critical of the police for failing to apprehend the individuals.

It is an unsettling thought that persons accused of being involved in violence or acts of terrorism are at liberty.

While some political parties have accused the state of victimising their workers — and politically motivated cases are not unknown in Pakistan — the fact remains that if there is solid evidence linking political workers to crime, then they should face justice.

Of course, the police bear primary responsibility for tracking down absconders and making sure they appear in court. In this age of technology and scientific advancement, it is totally unacceptable that law enforcers in Pakistan’s largest city are unable to produce 1,600 individuals wanted in such serious cases in court.

The Sindh police must make a greater effort to track down these suspects and bring them to court, so that that their cases can be resolved without delay.

As for absconders with political links, parties must also play a greater role in ensuring errant members face the justice system. It is difficult to argue with the fact that individuals wanted in sensitive cases can pose a threat to public safety.

We have examples in our midst where militants that have escaped from custody have gone on to perpetrate horrific violence.

If suspects are not tried and prosecuted, this will only provide further space for extrajudicial methods, as well as parallel systems such as the military courts.

There are no short cuts to overhauling the law-enforcement and criminal justice systems; among the first requirements is producing suspects in court and concluding trials within a reasonable period.

Mud-slinging again

A JOINT session of parliament convened by the government primarily to circumvent a defiant, opposition-dominated Senate on the future of PIA is an occasion that raises a number of legislative and democracy-related issues.

While the government is within its rights to pass legislation through a joint session of parliament, is it really setting a desirable, democracy-enhancing precedent?

For its part, could the opposition have avoided a joint session had it not played politics with the PIA issue?

Surely, the PML-N’s position is not wholly unreasonable and some of the opposition’s concerns could be accommodated in compromise legislation.

Moreover, with anti-rape and anti-honour killing laws to be considered by the joint session, among several other pieces of legislation, did the government and the opposition not have a chance to burnish the reputation of parliament?

Yet, none of those issues appeared to be on the minds of the country’s elected representatives when the joint session began on Monday evening. Instead, the legal fate of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf was what the PPP and the PTI wanted to discuss.

To be sure, the opposition leaders were on point when they suggested that parliament should have been taken into confidence on the decision to let Mr Musharraf travel abroad.

What the former army chief stands accused of is overthrowing the Constitution, which is the original achievement of parliament and a document that parliament alone can modify.

Therefore, a treason trial of Mr Musharraf was not simply a case of the government versus an individual, but the very definition of the national interest. Parliament should be the forum where such decisions are announced, not press conferences by the interior minister.

Yet, when Leader of the Opposition Khursheed Shah and the PTI’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi lambasted the government for its handling of the Musharraf affair, it was fairly clear that the opposition parties were more interested in politics than the state of democracy in the country.

Knowing that the government has been embarrassed by the Musharraf departure, the two leading opposition parties in parliament thought it fit to turn the political knife rather than focus on legislative matters.

Predictably, the PML-N proved no better in its response. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan once again lashed out at the PPP and used a familiar crude rhetoric to attack the previous government for not taking Mr Musharraf to the courts.

Yet, the exit of Mr Musharraf is a clear indictment of the PML-N’s brain trust and its strategic decision-making: at no stage did it appear that the PML-N leadership was in a position to see a treason trial through to its conclusion.

Moreover, in his eagerness to respond to the opposition’s taunts, the interior minister appears to have forgotten the purpose of the joint session — legislation. At the height of the PTI sit-in, the interior minister nearly derailed a joint session with his unparliamentary behaviour. It appears he has not learned any lessons.

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