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DAWN Editorials – 24th March 2016

Taxing high-tech

OUR economy was never famous for high technology and even in services as a whole the largest export is ‘military services’.

This basically comprises reimbursements under the Coalition Support Funds which are oddly classified as an export. But in recent years, software exports and the IT industry more generally had begun to show signs of vitality, although not of the kind that would indicate that it is on the verge of any major boom.

Then the inevitable happened and the government imposed an 8pc tax on the sector which more or less muzzled growth.

The first six months of the current fiscal year show software exports down from the corresponding period last year, and industry representatives are saying they can easily relocate to Dubai.

Software exports have been tax-exempt in Pakistan, a practice that is not uncommon around the world. If Pakistan is to move away from cotton as a mainstay of its economy, then the government will need to find a way to look at high-tech industries as more than just revenue cows.

The pattern of swooping down with revenue demands on any sector that shows signs of vitality is a common one in this country. Such ad hoc measures help keep our economy perpetually stuck in bread-and-butter industries.

It is sad to see military services as our top services export. A few years ago, the telecom sector was targeted with a very large tax liability that turned out to be more or less frivolous.

Such cases are common, but due care needs to be taken that signs of vitality in high-tech industries are not choked off through them.

It is true that some fraudulent elements have availed themselves of the tax exemptions traditionally enjoyed by the IT sector, and the answer to that is greater oversight, not blanket new taxes for everybody.

The software industry attracts some of our finest entrepreneurial talent. Government policies ought to be designed to encourage their enterprise, and not milk it for revenue.

Death penalty

IT is depressing to note that the number of executions carried out since Peshawar’s Army Public School tragedy in December 2014 now stands at over 350.

The data on executions was given by the deputy attorney general to the Supreme Court in the context of a petition seeking the swift disposal of appeals filed by over 7,000 prisoners on death row.

While the death penalty has been on the books for years, Pakistan had been maintaining an informal moratorium on executions, especially during the tenure of the last PPP government.

Unfortunately, the APS tragedy, horrific and devastating though it was, led to the evaporation of this restraint by the PML-N government, and since then, there has been a rush to execute convicts — the majority of them not linked to acts of terrorism.

But while we may have some knowledge of the number of executions, there is little information about those who were executed — especially the ones found guilty by the military courts set up shortly after the Peshawar tragedy.

The workings of the military courts are far from transparent, and several questions have been raised about the crimes that were committed, the particulars of the criminal, the nature of the trial, the appeals process, etc.

Meanwhile, controversy has also arisen over the civilian legal system where death sentences are pronounced on the basis of flimsy evidence and poor investigation.

This paper opposes the death penalty on grounds of principle. Even in the worst cases of crime, terrorism or militancy, it is sufficient that the perpetrators be tried and sentenced to a life behind bars. This should serve as a warning and a deterrent.

And where militants are concerned, as has been argued frequently, the threat of execution carries little weight with those already prepared to die.

Study after study internationally has shown that the death penalty does not bring down crime; it only brutalises society. Back when the moratorium was lifted, it seemed more a move to slake the thirst for vengeance after the APS tragedy rather than achieve any success against terrorism.

And in Pakistan’s case, with investigation, prosecution and justice systems that are notoriously inefficient and overloaded, the risk of travesties of justice has always been high.

Reason must prevail, and the country must not continue its descent into a vortex where inhumanity is the norm, and where there is danger of many an innocent life being snuffed out.

Brussels attack

BRUSSELS, a European capital so traumatised by its connections to last November’s Paris attacks, has itself come under attack in the most shocking of ways.

European society, particularly at the very heart of the EU, prides itself on its openness and interconnectedness and its symbols of those core values that the attackers sought to undermine with mass-casualty terror attacks in a crowded airport and a busy subway station.

Europe will surely rebound, but gaping holes in its defences have raised questions about how quickly it will recover.

Not only are two of the suspected attackers, brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, believed to be linked to the Paris attacks, including helping Salah Abdeslam evade capture, but were known previously to Belgian authorities because of their criminal record.

Clearly, Belgium’s, and perhaps more generally much of Europe’s, internal defence, intelligence and law-enforcement apparatuses will need to be overhauled.

Less clear is what can be done about the radicalisation among sections of European-born immigrant populations.

Marginalisation from mainstream society, high unemployment and informal social networks that have been penetrated by a radical version of Islam are not issues that are easily tackled.

The capture last week of Salah Abdeslam produced fresh hints about the scale of the problem in Belgium in particular — Abdeslam allegedly evaded capture in his hometown by tapping into a network of supporters and well-wishers who were willing to offer shelter to a suspected mass murderer.

Turning that situation around while staying true to the core values of European state and society is an unprecedented challenge.

Moreover, Europe’s problems will be compounded by a possible rise in xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of such attacks among significant sections of the population. Whether or not the militant Islamic State group is able to pull off more large-scale attacks, Europe is set for a long and painful readjustment.

Here in Pakistan, there are warning signs about the lure of IS and its modus operandi that ought to be heeded. The Paris and Brussels attacks have confirmed what was already thought to be a serious challenge for Europe — its citizens travelling to Syria to become part of IS and returning home more dangerous and radicalised than ever.

Pakistan, with its porous borders and known militant hotbeds, is already believed to have seen several of its citizens travel to Syria to join IS and some of those citizens have returned home.

With the state so focused on its fight against the banned TTP, does it have the resources to track emerging threats?

Online radicalisation poses an even more complex problem with no physical connection to known militant outfits required and many an educated mind here open to being seduced by religious radicalism.

Pakistan has already suffered the horrors of Al Qaeda, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the TTP; IS and groups inspired by its brand of militancy need to be fought before they can metastasise into a national threat.

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