A soldier stands guard outside the Kitton outpost on the border with Afghanistan in North Waziristan, Pakistan, on October 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Caren Firouz

Pakistan’s regressive, colonial-era Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) is set to be repealed. In a move already approved by the military establishment, the government hopes to bring the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the modern age through reforms and end draconian British-imposed customs.

However, efforts to pass the FATA reforms bill into law have hit a number of obstacles.

The FCR prevents the right to appeal or even hire lawyers and other basic human rights to those living in the FATA region. Hundreds of tribals are languishing in jails run by the political administration for crimes committed by their relatives.

While other Pakistanis derive their fundamental rights under Articles 8 to 28 of the constitution and can seek relief from the judiciary if any of their rights are violated, the people of the FATA are deprived of all such fundamental rights despite being citizens of the country.

The FATA region, mostly inhabited by Pashtun tribes, is still ruled by the FCR framed by the British in 1901. Clause 21 of the FCR deals with collective punishment, and under Sections 22-23, an entire tribe or family can be penalized for the crime of a single person. When convicted under this law, tribesmen lose their basic rights to appeal or challenge the judgment.

Clause 21 of the colonial-era FCR deals with collective punishment, and under Sections 22-23, an entire tribe or family can be penalized for the crime of a single person

There have been numerous instances when people in this region had to bear the brunt of this regressive law. For instance, in 2004, the administration of North Waziristan agency sentenced four women and 20 children of a kidnapper’s family to three years in jail under the collective-responsibility clause of the FCR.

The Pakistani military, which plays a major role in governing these areas, is hoping that “mainstreaming” of the FATA, which comprises seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions, will have far-reaching ramifications for the overall socio-economic development and governance of the area.

The enforcement of normal law and the extension of Pakistani courts will be some of the new measures in the tribal areas that are expected to restore basic human rights in the region. It will also facilitate the introduction of banks and a provincial-level revenue department in the tribal belt.

With the FATA Reforms Package, the government plans to replace the FCR with a constitutional criminal justice system. The new system will abolish the special status of seven FATA agencies stretching along the Pakistani-Afghan border where the judicial process currently does not apply and power is invested only with the political administration.

Currently, a political agent who is nominated by the federal government for each of the seven agencies – Khyber, North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Kurram, Bajaur, Mohmand and Orakzai Agencies – has absolute and unchallengeable financial, judicial and administrative power to deal with the tribal areas under the FCR framework. These impoverished areas have served as a hotbed for militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Jaish-e-Muhammad during and after the US-sponsored “war on terror.”

The reforms are not only likely to restore the law-and-order situation in the region, but also to abolish a safe haven for terrorists.

But the FATA reforms bill has hit an obstacle even after the federal cabinet approved it in March last year. It could not be passed into law because the government excluded the reforms bill from the agenda of the lower house of Parliament.

Some major opposition parties boycotted the National Assembly and demanded that the reforms bill be deferred. Some are seeking the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a neighboring province. Political entities allied to the civilian government such as the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI) and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) are also opposed to this reform. They want the government to defer the bill until a referendum is held in the FATA to let its people decide the future.

A senior leader of the JUI told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity that the FATA Reforms Committee did not have representation from tribesmen. “How can people from other provinces decide on behalf of the tribal population?” he asked.

However, insiders in the JUI claim the party’s chief was apprehensive of losing his party’s parliamentary position in the upper and lower houses of Parliament and in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly should the FATA be merged with it. “The strength of FATA representatives would downgrade the ranking of JUI in the Parliament,” one of the party’s sources told Asia Times.

The PkMAP wants a “separate status” for the FATA to be defined by the people of the tribal areas through a democratic process. “If any step is taken without the consent of the people of FATA to merge it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it will have devastating repercussions for the country,” PkMAP chairman Mehmood Khan Achakzai cautioned at a press conference on Wednesday in Quetta.

Brushing aside the apprehensions of the JUI and PkMAP, a FATA representative delegation consisting of hundreds of elders and youth from the tribal areas met with Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa last month. He assured them that the army would support the mainstreaming of the FATA in line with their aspirations.

Interestingly, the army chief and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi held lengthy discussions with JUI chief Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman to address his grievances, but the meeting failed to break the ice.

Political analysts have attributed the slow progress on the FATA reforms bill to the current political uncertainty following the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. A subsequent vilification campaign launched by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) against the judiciary and top military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is said to have created a wedge between different organs of the state.

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