Fed up with terrorists’ acquittals, govt headhunting for criminal lawyers

.—AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Troubled by the low conviction rate of suspected terrorists before trial courts and the high number of government appeals dismissed by the superior courts, the attorney general’s (AG) office is on the hunt for criminal law experts.

Sources in the AG’s office told Dawn that none of the government’s top legal advisers, including Attorney General Salman Aslam Butt, PM’s Special Assistant Barrister Zafarullah Khan, Khawaja Zaheer and former federal minister Zahid Hamid – are experts in criminal law.

AG Salman Aslam Butt, the principal law officer, specialises in corporate cases or company-related matters. He was a partner in Hamid Khan’s Lahore-based law firm Cornelius, Lane & Mufti. Before his appointment as the AG, he was representing the Sharif family in corruption cases against them.

Khawaja Zaheer, a former bureaucrat from the district management group (DMG), is an advocate of high court. After his retirement from public service in 2013, he was appointed special assistant to the prime minister and currently enjoys the status of a state minister.


Except for a handful of law officers, no one else has a background in dealing with criminal cases

Barrister Zafarullah Khan, also a former bureaucrat who resigned in 2002, was recently appointed the federal secretary for Law and Justice. However, he was made special assistant to the prime minister for parliamentary affairs after he developed certain differences with the AG. Earlier, Barrister Khan was a partner in the Nishtar & Zafar, a law firm specialising in corporate litigation.

Following the special court order to include former federal minister Zahid Hamid as a co-accused of former president retired General Pervez Musharraf in the treason case, Mr Hamid also disassociated himself from the government’s legal team.

This was why, sources in the government said, the government’s legal team was having a hard time giving constructive input on the matter of establishing military courts.

Sources also disclosed that following December 16 Peshawar blast, the AG has been asked to ‘vigorously’ pursue terrorism cases pending in different courts.

However, just a couple of days later on December 18, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks case was not only acquitted by the Islamabad Anti Terrorism Court (ATC), but his detention under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) was also suspended by the Islamabad High Court (IHC). Lakhvi’s release put further pressure on the principal law officer and asked his aides to get in touch with experts on criminal law, who would then be inducted as law officers.

Over the past seven years, over 2,000 suspected terrorists have been acquitted by the courts as government agencies and the prosecution failed to prove the cases against them.

A law officer of the federal government claimed that the accused would benefit from legal loopholes opened up by flawed investigations. “It is the responsibility of the investigating agency, whether it is the FIA or the police, to provide tangible evidence to the prosecution so that the prosecutor can convince the court,” he said.

However, he admitted that most members of the government’s legal team, from top to bottom, have little or no specialised knowledge of criminal proceedings, which gave the terror suspects an advantage, as their experienced lawyers could easily exploit weaknesses in the prosecution’s cases.

According to an official list, there are 130 law officers: the AG, six additional attorneys general (AAGs) and 38 deputy attorneys general (DAGs), while the rest are standing counsel.

Except for two AAGs – Atique Shah and Naseer Bhutta – the rest, namely Mohammad Waqar Rana, Khawaja Saeeduz Zafar, Afnan Karim Kundi and Salman Talibuddin, were dealing with corporate cases prior their appointment, a source in the AG’s office told Dawn.

Similarly, of the 38 DAGs, just about a dozen are well-versed with criminal law, he said.

When asked to comment on the matter, AAG Mohammad Waqar Rana told Dawn that lawyers who deal with the criminal cases do not care to work as law officers.

“The AG’s office tried to induct some criminal law experts, but they turned down the job,” he added.

Zulfiqar Abbas Naqvi, a leading criminal lawyer, told Dawn that the AG’s office had never sought any assistance from the experts. “We are ready to give them advice or extend any other service, even pro bono,” he said, adding that the monthly salary of a law officer is not at par with what a lawyer could earn in their own practice.

However, Mr Naqvi suggested that the government could engage expert lawyers as special prosecutors for selected cases.

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