Earlier this week, an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Islamabad issued non-bailable arrest warrants for Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, with both being accused of involvement in the attacks by PTI and PAT protestors on the PTV building and parliament in August and September. Warrants have also been issued for KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and other PTI leaders including Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Asad Umer.

While there is considerable reason to be critical of the role the PTI and the PAT have played in Pakistan’s politics over the past few months, it is also clear that the government’s use of anti-terror legislation to attack its political opponents is unwise, impractical and, in this instance, indicative of little more than small-minded vindictiveness. Even if it were to be argued that the PTI and PAT leadership should be held accountable for the violence that marred their demonstrations and sit-ins at different points in time, ATCs are not the correct mechanisms through which to do this. After all, ATCs ostensibly exist to deal with cases related to terrorism and militancy; using them to settle political vendettas and persecute critics of the government is hardly appropriate.

At one level, the government’s recourse to anti-terror legislation and courts to deal with the PTI and the PAT is not surprising. The extremely vague definition of terrorism within the Anti-Terrorism Act, which includes activities such as causing mischief, damaging property, and harassing public servants, allows for the law to be invoked for virtually any kind of offence. The same is also true for the more recently promulgated Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, an ignominious piece of legislation that has empowered the country’s security forces to make use of even more arbitrary and authoritarian measures in pursuit of their objectives. Both of these laws ride roughshod over the civil liberties of Pakistan’s citizens, and represent a dangerous extension of the government’s power to target and punish those it deems to be a threat to itself and its allies.

The best demonstration of the anti-democratic and dangerous nature of the Anti-Terrorism Act can be seen in the case of Baba Jan, a former Vice President of the Awami Workers Party and activist in Gilgit Baltistan. Following the displacement of thousands of people by the 2010 floods, Baba Jan and his supporters launched protests against the government, calling attention to the callous disregard shown by the state to the people who suffered at the hands of this natural disaster. In exchange for their efforts, Baba Jan and eleven others were arrested and tried by an ATC, finally being sentenced to life imprisonment on 25 September 2014. Similarly, in 2011 six workers in Faisalabad were also handed life sentences by an ATC court. Their crime was simply that they had protested for higher wages, demanding that their employers in the textile industry increase the minimum wage in line with the law. When PTCL was privatized in the mid-2000s, hundreds of union members were tried in ATC courts after they protested against the government, dozens of whom are still incarcerated on trumped up charges.

As an increasingly jaded and desensitized citizenry receives reports of bomb blasts and mass killings on an almost daily basis, it is often easy to forget that there are many kinds of everyday violence that routinely blight the lives of the people of this country. For the poor, the workers and peasants who comprise the majority of the population, life in Pakistan is characterized by poverty and deprivation, with the daily struggle for sustenance being exacerbated by the presence of a state completely and totally aligned with the interests of the economic elite. All of the mainstream political parties, beholden as they are to landed magnates and powerful industrialists, have little interest in providing the poor with social and economic justice, focusing instead on mouthing empty platitudes as they engage in petty politicking and ultimately irrelevant political grandstanding. At every level of the state, from the legislature to the courts, bureaucracy and police, the elite can be sure of virtually unconditional support, with the poor possessing increasingly small spaces from within which to challenge the status quo.

It is abundantly clear that for the state, ATCs and anti-terror legislation, like colonial-era ‘emergency’ laws, serve an important function as mechanisms through which to regulate and police protests, ensuring the maintenance of conditions in which the poor can continue to be disciplined and exploited in order to facilitate the processes of economic accumulation that benefit the elite. Equating protests for higher wages to terrorism exposes the brutal, naked alliance between the state and capital in Pakistan, just as the use of anti-terror laws to try political opponents is indicative of the state’s desire to exercise untrammelled power. From Balochistan to Gilgit Baltistan, it is the downtrodden and dispossessed, and those who fight for them, who have borne the brunt of the state’s ‘efforts’ to curb terrorism.

The real irony in all of this is that when it comes to actually trying and convicting known terrorists and sectarian militants, Pakistan’s ATCs have a truly dismal record. There have been literally hundreds of cases in which ATCs have been unable to secure the conviction of men known to have been actively involved in the planning and perpetration of terrorist atrocities including suicide attacks, kidnappings, executions, and the targeting of minority groups. While the ATCs themselves attribute all of this to the failure of law enforcement authorities to properly investigate the cases that are brought before them, or to protect the witnesses who fear reprisals at the hands of the accused, the fact remains that these courts, and the legislation that empowers them, have manifestly failed to deliver on their primary responsibility. In the meantime, many of the men acquitted by the ATCs continue to engage their propagation of hate and murder with impunity, secure in the knowledge that there is little the state can or will do to impede them.

While Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri both possess the means through which to defend themselves from the government’s attempts to try them in ATCs, Baba Jan and the hundreds of activists who languish in jails across Pakistan have no such resources. They are the true victims of an unaccountable state that is willing to go to any lengths to protect itself and the elites that support it. Pakistan may not have met with much success in the War on Terror, but it certainly continues to go from strength to strength in the War on the Poor.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk