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Pakistan amends terror law amid major anti-militant push

Lawmakers passed changes to Pakistan's anti-terrorism law on Wednesday, doubling the maximum prison sentence for those convicted of terror offences and allowing security forces to detain suspects for up to 60 days.

ISLAMABAD: Lawmakers passed changes to Pakistan's anti-terrorism law on Wednesday, doubling the maximum prison sentence for those convicted of terror offences and allowing security forces to detain suspects for up to 60 days.

The Pakistani government had faced a battle to push the tough anti-terror law through, with rights activists and opposition parties attacking it as repressive.

The changes come after Pakistan's military launched a massive offensive on June 15 against insurgents in the tribal area of North Waziristan.

The Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014 doubles the maximum jail time for terror offences to 20 years.

But it also brings down to 60 days the maximum time that security forces can hold suspects without disclosing their whereabouts or the allegations against them.

When the legislation was first approved by lawmakers in April it allowed for 90 days' detention, sparking criticism from Human Rights Watch and opposition parties.

Security forces had also been granted powers to open fire on anyone they see committing or "likely to commit" terror-related offences, but the amendment now means senior officers can only shoot suspects "as a last resort".

Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that while the law had improved in some ways she remained concerned that it could be intended to give legal cover to enforced disappearances.

Campaigners say as many as 2,000 people have disappeared across Pakistan, many from the restive southwestern province of Baluchistan. Rights groups accuse the government of gross violations including holding people in secret and failing to put them on trial.

"They have brought some improvements, but we still have concerns about disappearances because security forces can still keep the detentions secret and only tell a court about it," Yusuf told AFP.

"The law is there now and our role will now be to strictly monitor its violations," she added.

The government introduced the legislation in a bid to curb the violence and instability blighting Pakistan.

The nuclear-armed nation has been in the grip of a homegrown Taliban insurgency since 2007, with more than 6,800 people killed in bomb and gun attacks, according to an AFP tally.

Pakistan also faces a violent separatist movement in southwestern Baluchistan province and rising sectarian violence.

Pakistan minister Zahid Hamid said the law would also "give statutory cover" to armed forces fighting local and foreign militants in North Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan.

So far a total of 386 militants and 19 soldiers have been killed in the offensive, according to the military, though with the area off-limits to journalists the number and identity of the dead is impossible to verify.

Nearly half a million people have fled the offensive, which is aimed at wiping out longstanding militant strongholds.

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