On Monday, the National Assembly (NA) passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016, a key bill seeking amendments to various laws, aimed at strengthening the criminal justice system and curbing sectarianism and persecution of minorities in the country. What sets it apart from other bills on sectarianism and the criminal justice system is its focus on updating punishments and improving enforcement rather than creating new crimes. The law enforcement agencies and the justice system is under the parliament’s purview, not the criminal.

This is something jurists have been calling for years. The laws against homicide, bodily harm, hate speech, and property damage have existed from the start in our penal code, but it is the process of prevention and conviction that acts as the weak link. Perpetrators abuse loopholes or take on archaic and nominal punishments to commit sectarian crimes at will – counting on police inaction or ineptitude to help them along the way. The new bill addresses many of these concerns, especially when it comes to accruing responsibility in tricky cases involving violent mobs.

The most useful of these changes is to instruct police officers – by law – to include “prevention of sectarian and hate speeches and proliferation of hate material by any person, organised group, organisation or banned outfit in their basic duties” – the dereliction of these duties, or any other breach or neglect, is now punishable by imprisonment up to three years and and a fine of Rs100,000 (up from a three-month imprisonment and confiscation of three month’s salary).

So many shameful incidents have happened where the police have stood idly by as atrocities were being committed in front of them – such as the Kot Radha Krishan lynching and the recent attack on an Ahmedi Mousqe in Chakwal – something had to change. It is hoped this law will compel law enforcement to take their job more seriously, or face the consequences.

Another major change is how vigilante lynchings are viewed by the law. Traditionally, these were problematic when it came to meeting legal definitions of “culprit” and “accomplice” etc, the new law simplifies things by holding the whole mob that is present equally guilty for the crime. This is a much needed change, that should be applied to other instances of mob violence too, such as property damage. The threat of being treated as a murderer simply for being there should thin the crowds, and make law enforcement’s job a lot easier.

The law also adds several other useful amendments to current laws and is overall a welcome addition to the Pakistan Penal Code. It is hoped that prosecutors and the judiciary makes good use of them.