Stop the jihadi and sectarian militancy in Pakistan’s prisons

Militancy in prison
By Huma Yusuf

Sunday, 27 Sep, 2009 (Dawn)

IN July, the ISI released a dossier describing the connection between madressahs and militant networks. To illustrate the issue, the dossier presented the case of Fidaullah Yousufzai, a 24-year-old who was educated at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid and four other seminaries before joining the militant Ghazi Force.

Yousufzai then went on to join the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s Buner chapter after a prison stint during which he met other TTP militants.

Yousufzai’s story is typical and such examples have led to many calls for madressah reform. For some reason, though, the fact that Yousufzai’s transition into the TTP was enabled by his time in jail has not led to similar demands for prison reform. Indeed, despite countless indicators that prisons are hotbeds for jihadi recruitment and terror plotting, the Pakistan government has neglected to include an overhaul of its detention system in its counter-terrorism strategy.

During the summer offensive against the Taliban, the security forces arrested hundreds of militants during search and clearance operations and dozens more have surrendered. These militants are primarily being held in prisons across the Frontier province and Northern Areas, though a few top commanders such as TTP spokesman Muslim Khan have been brought to Islamabad or Rawalpindi for questioning. Few details are available about the conditions and circumstances in which Taliban militants are detained.

But earlier this month, interior ministry sources admitted that militant commanders in different prisons are plotting terror attacks from their jail cells. Incarcerated militants are reported to be in touch with each other and their associates through mobile phones, some of which have been provided by sympathetic prison guards.

The idea that militancy is thriving in prisons is not a new one: in July this year, Maj Gen Douglas Stone of the US Marines was tasked with reviewing detention issues in Afghanistan. His review was timed in anticipation of an influx of new prisoners captured during the American offensive in southern Afghanistan this summer. Not surprisingly, Gen Stone found that overcrowded and poorly managed Afghan prisons where human rights abuses are rampant are spurring militant recruitment and therefore strengthening the Taliban.

Stone urgently recommended separating extremist militants from common criminals to ensure that jails do not become substitutes for training camps. He also stressed the importance of providing inmates who are not hardliners with vocational training and exposing them to moderate Islamic teachings. Finally, Stone’s review called for training new Afghan prison guards, prosecutors and judges to reduce corruption within the detention system and guarantee swift trials.

The difficulty of stemming militant recruitment in prisons was reiterated this month when the secretary general of the Italian penitentiary police union expressed concerns that Muslim inmates were becoming radicalised owing to the difficult conditions in jails. He suggested that overcrowded cells and a high number of foreign detainees — 27,000 of which one third are Muslim — was leading to a situation in which petty criminals were being wooed by terror suspects. Italian prisons are relatively better managed and have an easier time keeping track of the activities of suspected terrorists than those in Pakistan or Afghanistan; if they’re having

trouble with militancy in prisons then one can only imagine what the situation here might be.

The Afghan and Italian examples cited above emphasise that the proximity of jailed extremists and common criminals serves as a fillip for militant recruitment. But the maltreatment of prisoners is equally problematic. Take, for example, Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-i-Charki prison on the eastern outskirts of Kabul. The facility is overcrowded, has a crumbling infrastructure, and lacks water and electricity. The staff is poorly paid, which leads to corruption. Prisoners have repeatedly protested the poor conditions, and after one inmate uprising turned violent in December 2008, government officials learnt that the prisoners had tried to contact the Taliban and Al Qaeda to help them escape. The same injustice that fosters militancy in society continues to take effect in jail cells.

It is on this count in particular that Pakistan must embrace prison reform as part of its counter-terrorism strategy. Our jails are crowded, squalid and staffed by corrupt officials. Visiting the prison in Sukkur in May this year, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry criticised the “subhuman” conditions prisoners endure, and took note of the poor quality of the bread they’re fed. Torture is also common, and the death of militants in custody could serve as a rallying point for militants and criminals against abusive jailers. (Taliban commander Sher Muhammad Qasab’s recent death in custody reportedly owing to critical wounds sustained during a gun battle in Swat has already raised a few eyebrows in the international media.)

Besides hindering militant recruitment, prison reform is needed as a security measure. Last summer, 870 prisoners, including 400 Taliban militants, escaped from a high-security prison in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province during a well-planned Taliban assault. Taliban commanders quickly redeployed the escaped militants and terror attacks in the province spiked. In Pakistan, as the TTP begins to feel the post-operation crunch, similar attempts to free militants in captivity as a way to boost Taliban ranks are not inconceivable. Only state-of-the-art, maximum-security facilities can ensure that convicted militants stay behind bars.

Finally, prison reform is essential because when Pakistani government officials get overwhelmed, they do stupid things. Post-9/11 terror sweeps inundated our prisons with terror suspects in 2001. As detention capacity fell short, interior ministry officials printed out a declaration form that asked militants to declare that they would ‘give up militancy for good.’ The plan was for police to keep an eye on militants who signed the form to ensure that they lived up to promises of good conduct. Less than a decade later, we had thousands of TTP fighters take control of Fata and Malakand. This time around, as the army crackdown continues to put militants behind bars, lets ensure they stay there at least long enough to see the inside of an anti-terrorism court.