Crime v. Terrorism

This is a great piece in the LRB on how one defines "credible fear" in order to establish eligibility for asylum.

The complexities of women’s lives can be overlooked by the legal system. But the more time I spent at the detention centre, the more I saw it was systematically prone to the dynamics of evasion and rhetorical slipperiness of the phrase ‘credible fear’. The name ‘Family Residential Center’ is disingenuous, too. Owned by a private prison company, the centre – a collection of pre-fabricated huts – is surrounded by mirrors, surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire. US immigration policy is based on an irrational fear of the people detained here. There is nothing credible about it.

The nature of legal definitions - and the impact they have on someone's life - reminded me of the challenges with defining terrorism in the Pakistani anti-terrorism court system and the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Reema Omer at the ICJ had an excellent op-ed recently on the vague and inconsistent ways in which the definition of terrorism has been interpreted by the courts in Pakistan. 

In order to establish whether an alleged crime is an act of terrorism, the prosecutor has to prove that it matches the definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act, one of which includes that it must have affected society at large. This can and is very arbitrary: is there a barometer for what shocks society, and how does one judge that? In the Rangers-Sarfaraz Shah case, the prosecution presented a witness who described how her children were traumatised at viewing the video of Shah being killed.

But what differentiates a crime from terrorism? As Omer points out:

 While there is no agreed universal legal definition of terrorism, international standards clarify that laws related to terrorism must be clearly and precisely formulated, and they must be limited to countering terrorism, as properly defined. This means that the ‘action’ must be a serious crime such as grievous physical violence, and the intention with which it is carried out must be to provoke a state of terror in the general public or a segment of it, or to compel the government to do or abstain from doing something. The definition of terrorism under the ATA falls foul of these standards: it is vague, overbroad, and allows even acts driven by reasons other than spreading fear or coercing governments to be considered ‘terrorism’

Where does one draw the line at what cases should be heard by the regular courts v/s anti-terrorism or special courts? This isn't always dependent on the law, but also on perception, 

There was - for a considerable period in Karachi - a palpable sentiment that cases be sent to the ATC because they were theoretically assumed to work faster [while in reality, there was a considerable backlog] This seems to have been blurred further by the introduction of miitary courts; with a bevy of "high-profile" cases sent or transferred out of the ATC to military courts.