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Dawn Editorial 9 April 2020

FATF extension

AN unexpected development has given Pakistan an additional two months in which to complete the action plan steps that were going to be reviewed in June. The Financial Action Task Force told the government of Pakistan that the June meeting will not be held due to the ongoing coronavirus situation and Pakistan’s progress on its action plan will be evaluated in August instead. No doubt this comes as a relief to some in the government, since much work remained to be done by June. But it would be a grave mistake to treat the additional time that has unexpectedly been granted as some sort of ‘relief’. Sitting this time out would be in keeping with the reflexes that usually guide work in the government, but those reflexes would be a disservice.
Pakistan was already working under an extension, and in the last February meeting, was allowed six more months to complete 13 of the 27 items in its action plan that had been missed for the February review. Some action had indeed been taken in February, specifically the conviction of Hafiz Saeed in a terror-financing case, which was one of the biggest sticking points in the implementation of the action plan. But this was not the first time that we saw a spurt of action right when the taskforce was either meeting or getting ready to meet, creating the impression that all measures were simply being taken to have something to show for at the meeting. The extended time that has been granted can be used to help dispel this impression by advancing more terror-financing inquiries and tightening up the country’s prosecution and conviction rate further in this crucial area.
What is more likely, however, is that the government authorities will show limited progress on the 13 points, where action is now required, and invoke the lockdowns as an excuse for asking for yet another extension. It would be better to use the time granted to us to try and push for full compliance, though, and given the window created by the lockdowns, of diminished economic activity, to hunt down all other avenues through which terror financing takes place. Instead of an excuse, the present conditions, in fact, grant an opportunity to the government. The priority now is not simply getting through the review meeting without falling into the so-called blacklist. The clear priority is to get off the grey list altogether. No matter how well the stars are aligned for us on the geopolitical table where Pakistan is seeking to draw linkages from, there is no better reason to aim for an expeditious end to the grey listing status than the country’s own economic interests. In the perception of outside observers, a pattern has emerged of Pakistan taking cosmetic action and asking for extensions. This is a good moment to lay this view to rest.


Infected prisoners

ON Monday, the Supreme Court overturned earlier judgements made by the high courts to release under-trial prisoners in light of the coronavirus epidemic. Fearing the spread of the virus inside the notoriously overcrowded prison spaces, last month, the Islamabad High Court decided that all under-trial prisoners at the Adiala Jail, involved in minor crimes, were to be freed on bail, while also advising the police not to make further arrests of petty criminals during the health crisis. Following the order, nearly 300 prisoners were released from jail. Meanwhile, Sindh released hundreds of prisoners involved in minor crimes on the orders of Sindh High Court Chief Justice Ahmed Ali M. Shaikh. These decisions were in line with a global conversation about prisoner rights and capacity issues — the result of judicial lethargy and over-incarceration by law enforcement — during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah was correct to point out how susceptible prisoners were to the spread of the infection, especially given the poor hygiene standards, lack of medical care, and the already present ailments within prison confines. Earlier, a committee tasked with investigating human rights abuses and the lack of medical assistance in prisons found that over 5,000 inmates suffered from some form of illness, with nearly 2,400 inflicted with diseases such as HIV, hepatitis or tuberculosis. One can only dread what would happen to such vulnerable prisoners if they were infected by the novel coronavirus. How could anyone realistically ensure social distancing amongst prisoners, when, in Adiala Jail alone, some 5,000 prisoners are packed against the capacity of only 2,174 individuals? Furthermore, inmates could pass on the virus to prison staff they come in contact with, who would in turn infect their family and community.
The latest decision has come at a point when the coronavirus has already been detected within the prison population, although the apex court did retain an exception for under-trial prisoners who are incarcerated for crimes carrying a sentence of less than three years. Last month, the SC ordered the provincial authorities to ensure that fumigation is carried out within prison confines, but in Punjab alone, nearly 50 prisoners were recently diagnosed with the virus. It is a good time to be reminded of the fact that over 60pc of all prisoners are under trial, waiting to hear their verdicts, their fate hanging in a state of indefinite purgatory.


Taliban about-turn

THE peace process in Afghanistan was never going to be a smooth affair. This was something that even the most optimistic of observers had noted when reports emerged that the Afghan Taliban were negotiating with the Americans to strike a deal in the war-torn country. Sure enough, even though a deal was signed between the Taliban and the US in Doha at the end of February, implementation of some of the agreement’s key points has been quite tricky. Take, for example, the prisoner swap mechanism between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It had been decided in principle that both sides would release each other’s detainees as a confidence-building measure. Kabul is said to be holding around 5,000 Taliban fighters, while close to 1,000 government men are in the insurgents’ custody. Late on Tuesday, the Taliban spokesman tweeted that his side would not participate in “fruitless meetings” with the Afghan government as the release of Taliban prisoners was being “delayed”. As per reports in the media, Kabul is willing to release a few hundred low-level Taliban fighters, but the militia wants some of its top ‘commanders’ to be included in the deal.
Clearly, this is a major stumbling block. If not addressed, it can derail the entire peace process. The Taliban should realise that if talks fail, it would be back to the battlefield, meaning more of the same bloodshed that has been Afghanistan’s fate for the past few decades. That is why both the Taliban and the Kabul government must reach some sort of compromise where the exchange of prisoners is concerned, so that the next phase of the peace process can be initiated. Sticking to maximalist positions will benefit no one and will only further complicate the deadlock. The gulf of mistrust between Kabul and the militant group is wide and deep. Therefore, out-of-the-box solutions are needed for peace to succeed. If the talks fail, the unfortunate people of Afghanistan must prepare for another prolonged season of violence.


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