View from the courtroom: Maulana Sufi cases depict confused state policies

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Monday, February 9, 2015

The last two decades saw the repeated rise and fall of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the founder and chief of Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM). Imprisoned these days at the Peshawar central prison, he has spent almost 12 years behind bars.

The different phase of Maulana Sufi’s life since 1994 is a classic example of a confused State, not sure what sort of policy should be adopted towards him. From time-to-time the government in power continued to change its policy regarding him. At times he was treated as a diehard militant while on other occasions he was considered an important figure without whom maintenance of peace in Malakand region was impossible.

Maulana Sufi, known for his anti-democracy extremist views, either remained imprisoned or continued to receive special treatment from successive governments. He has so far been acquitted in around 10 terrorism-related cases, most of them registered 20 years ago, and is currently facing trial in three cases. In one of the cases Maulana Sufi is charged along with several other TNSM members with sedition and hatching conspiracy against the state. The case pertained to a public meeting organised by TNSM at Grassy Ground, Swat, in April 2009 when the movement had entered into a fragile peace deal with then provincial coalition government of Awami National Party and Pakistan Peoples Party.

While the controversial public meeting was held in April the administration turned a blind eye towards it and the FIR was registered over three months later on July 30, 2009 when Swat and rest of Malakand was liberated from militants of Tehreek-i-Swat. In his speech Maulana Sufi had termed the Supreme Court and high courts as well as the Constitution un-Islamic.

Another case pertained to staging a sit-in by TNSM in 2008 for pressuring the then government for early enactment of Shariah law in Malakand region. The third case was related to an attack on a police station in Kabal by activists of TNSM in 1994. During the incident the police station was ransacked by the attackers.

Maulana Sufi was least heard of when he was a member of Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan. He had contested local government elections during that period and also got elected as district councillor in Dir. He fell out with JI and set up TNSM in 1989. He organised a sit-in in 1991 during the government of Pakistan Muslim League in the province, but called it off when the provincial government assured him that Shariah would be enforced.

The 80 years old cleric rose to prominence in 1994 when he blocked the Malakand Highway for many days after the Supreme Court upheld a judgement of the Peshawar High Court through which Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) Regulations were declared as unconstitutional. He and his supporters apprehended that regular laws of Pakistan might be extended to Pata. There were also reports of bureaucracy encouraging him for the said sit-in as executive enjoyed massive judicial powers under the erstwhile Pata Regulations.

The then government of PPP instead of introducing regular laws in Pata tried to appease TNSM and promulgated the Nifaz-i-Nizam-i-Shariah Regulation in 1994. Since then the nomenclature of the judicial officers was changed in Pata and the district and sessions judge is now called Zila Qazi, and a senior civil judge as Aala Ilaqa Qazi. During those days Maulana Sufi was taken into custody for several days when his armed supporters occupied several government installations in Swat and adjoining areas.

The twists and turns of Maulana Sufi’s life did not stop there. Dissatisfied with the Regulation of 1994 the TNSM again launched a movement in 1998 following which then provincial government of Mehtab Ahmad Khan introduced the Shariah Nizam-i-Adl Regulation, 1999, making various changes to the earlier law.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Maulana Sufi assumed international media coverage when he first staged big anti-US meetings and then crossed over to Afghanistan leading hundreds of ill-equipped people for fighting a “holy war” against the US forces. The then government apparently did not make any effort to stop them from going to Afghanistan.

He left those hundreds of people in the lurch and managed to return to Pakistan via Kurram Agency on Nov 20, 2011. He along with 30 of his supporters, including Maulana Fazlullah – the fugitive head of TTP, were arrested and tried under the Frontier Crimes Regulation.

They were convicted by the assistant political agent, Kurram Agency, on March 30, 2002 on three counts: carrying explosive substances and lethal weapons; display of heavy weaponry; and, illegal entry into Pakistan from Afghanistan. The sentence slapped on Maulana Sufi on different counts amounted to 10 years imprisonment.

The then military government of General Pervez Musharraf proscribed TNSM in Jan 2002 and placed ban on its activities. In Nov 2007, his son also named Fazlullah filed a habeas corpus petition in the Peshawar High Court requesting that he may be set free as he had already completed his prison term. While the said petition was pending the then caretaker provincial government shifted him from DI Khan prison to Hayatabad Medical Complex, Peshawar.

When the ANP-PPP coalition government was set up in the province following general elections in 2008, the TNSM’s chief was released in April that year after serving over six years in prison. The government had entered into an agreement with TNSM in which the latter had disassociated from attacks on security forces and government installations.

The government signed another peace deal with TNSM in Feb 2009, hoping that Maulana Sufi would exercise his influence on his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, and help in restoration of peace in Swat where at that time the TTP was calling the shots. The then government also introduced the present Shariah Nizam-i-Adl Regulation 2009, replacing the Regulation of 1999. However, that peace deal fell apart as the militants also extended activities to adjoining districts of Buner, Shangla, Malakand and Lower Dir.

When the final phase of military operation was launched in May 2009 in Malakand, another phase of downfall of the TNSM’s chief started. He went into hiding, but was apprehended on July 26, 2009. Since then he has been behind the bars. Initially, he was arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance and subsequently his trials in over a dozen cases of terrorism were initiated.

Legal experts believe that Maulana Sufi should be thankful to successive governments for his acquittal in most of the cases. They believe that as most of the cases were registered over two decade ago and were not tried in time, the witnesses were mostly not available to testify against him. They believe that wrong policies of government mostly went in favour of elements like Maulana Sufi.