The Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) were established after the promulgation of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, to fast-track cases against terrorists. However, it has been the labourers, trade union leaders and social activists that ATCs have been harassing. In addition to terrorism, other crimes such as arms trafficking, kidnapping, gang rape, sectarian violence, extortion, and target killings are also covered in the ATA. But what they have been up to has been far from an effort to curtail terrorism. What is the effectiveness of such a court when little girls are being raped and bombs are going off, because the only conviction the ACTs are getting is those of labourers and activists?

Most recently, Baba Jan, a well-known activist and former Vice President of the Awami Workers Party, as well as 11 other activists from Gilgit-Baltistan, were given life sentences by an ATC on September 25, 2014. In Faisalabad, 12 loom workers were given life sentences because they were fighting for minimum wage. Twenty activists of the Anjuman-e-Mazareen fighting for land rights in Okara were also convicted on criminal charges by an ATC. The ATCs have just become a mechanism for the government to give legal cover to their own illegal activities.

The ATCs seem to have their finger in the wrong pie. An Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Islamabad released one of the accused in the Daniel Pearl case, Qari Hashim, for lack of evidence. By acquitting Qari Hashim the court failed to distinguish between an ordinary criminal act and an act of terror. It is not easy to gather intelligence in terrorism cases. Those that can easily be prosecuted are the labourers and honest activists, helping raise conviction rates. After the killing of the Christian couple in Kot Radha Krishan, the case has been sent to the ATC. Will there be justice?

It’s not just dharnas that have got people out on the streets. Unemployment, unfair dismissals, victimisation of trade union leaders and low wages are bringing people out of their homes. Progressive leftist political forces in Pakistan have always faced repression of the state, and their leaders have been jailed, tortured and killed to weaken their movement in Pakistan.