When the initial judgment on the Mashal Khan case came, from the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC), Haripur, it was considered a progressive step, although not entirely satisfactory. It seems however that even that small victory is being taken away, as per the Peshawar High Court (PHC)’s recent actions.

The PHC’s Abbottabad circuit bench, comprising Justice Lal Jan and Justice Atiq shah, suspended the three-year jail terms handed to 25 people in the Mashal Khan lynching case during a hearing on appeals against the Feb 7 ATC Court verdict in the case and ordered their release till the appeals are heard. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government and Mashal’s family had previously petitioned the PHC against the verdict, calling for the conviction of those acquitted and stricter jail terms for those convicted in the case. The convicts had, however, challenged their convictions in the PHC.

Since the case is sub judice, we cannot pass judgments on the case nor speculate guilt. However it can be said that this trial is a test case for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) - and federal - government and they have come up short. How can 25 convicted murderers by considered safe enough to be given bail? They are flight risks and a proven danger to the community. They are virtually free till the lengthy appeal process is finished.

Since the case is yet to go to trial, a definite opinion cannot be formed on it. However, the court decided to grant ‘benefit’ of Section 282-B of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). This is an anti-terrorism case, and one of the few times where a case rightly belongs to the ATC. The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1995 is a special law and overrides CrPC. S 25 (8) of ATA clearly states that “pending the appeal, the High Court shall not release the accused on bail.”

The reason for this is the severity of the crime in an ATC case, making it too dangerous for the society at large to grant bail to an accused to roam free. This is a dangerous reflection on crime in KP, and the KP government must do more to ensure citizens safety; if bail can be denied for other offenders, it is a necessity that these people be kept in confinement till the final verdict comes. More than anything, this is a failure of the prosecution and the security forces, for not being able to challenge a bail petition effectively.