The arrest and judicial remand of Ahsan Ali has taken the lawyers community, political workers and the locals by surprise. In what can only be described as a blatant misuse of its powers and jurisdiction, the anti-terrorism court in Gilgit arrested the senior lawyer and political activist on charges of “hurting religious sentiments of the people”. Denouncing his arrest, political and civil society activists staged at protest outside the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday to demand the release of all activists, including Baba Jan and for the federal government to withdraw the extension and application of the Anti-Terrorism Act to G-B.

There are two issues that need to be pointed out in this misuse of the ATA and its executive ATCs: one is the flagrant misapplication of the Act itself and the other subsequently is its questionable jurisdiction as it applies to Gilgit-Baltistan.

This is not the first time the ATCs role has been questioned in the disputed region of Gilgit-Baltistan. Locals have protested against the ATCs asserting that they tend to target political activists and serve to quell political dissent. As Gigit-Baltistan still has an unofficial status as a disputed territory, where the benefaction and laws of the constitution do not fully extend to the region, the jurisdiction of the ATCs falls on ambiguous grounds. To further misuse the law under the semantics of blasphemy where it does not even ring true, calls the role of the legal body into question.

The legal obscurity of the definition of the term Terrorism gives the ATC free reign to settle disputes, curb public protests, in fact just about any offence that can be deemed antagonistic. This gaping loophole allows the misuse of legislation to the extent that even routine misdemeanors, grievances and personal insults are countered with FIRs which are invariably accepted. Through its application, first political demonstrations and now freedom of expression under the indictment of ‘blasphemy’ has also been transformed into the ubiquitous slur of ‘terrorism’.

The parallel judicial apparatus of the ATCs that was initiated to deal with terrorism-related cases has taken up routine grievances that invalidate its very purpose and legal bearing. As an adjunct judicial body, its actions need cautious deliberation. If correctly applied it has the potential to truly curb and reprimand actual terrorism, however its misuse can take the form of oppression and injustice. The first step towards manicuring the ATCs role and jurisdiction would be to ascribe a specific and narrow definition of terrorism, applied through an independent assessment of the offence committed to determine its intent.