Malala trial: 'Secret' acquittals raise further doubts

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Malala Yousafzai holds a bouquet of flowers, given to her on behalf of the Pakistani Prime MinsterImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Malala Yousafzai was shot by Taliban gunmen after campaigning for education rights

It didn't take long for the news to spread around Pakistan's fiercely competitive media, and then the world: 10 men had been convicted over the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai and sentenced to life.

The only problem? It wasn't true. Only two of the 10 were found guilty. Was it a calculated leak? Or did officials simply neglect to correct an error that made good PR?

The trial was held inside Paitham, where an anti-terrorism court was convened in a former hotel building converted into a military detention centre.

Surprisingly no one, including local journalists, had any inkling previously that a trial had been in progress.

An army spokesman told journalists he would be issuing a statement, but later changed his mind. A public prosecutor told the Associated Press news agency that 10 men had been sentenced to life, but later denied ever speaking to the reporter.

Amid all the confusion though, one thing was clear: Pakistan had been under pressure to get convictions, and suddenly it appeared to have 10.

Targeting the Taliban

Over the past one year or so, Pakistan has been trying to reposition itself against the militants it has been frequently accused of supporting, a charge it denies.

In June 2014, the army launched a ground operation in North Waziristan, targeting the sanctuaries of militants who were becoming increasingly hostile towards Pakistan.

At the same time, the Pakistani military launched what many called "a diplomatic offensive", which took army chief Gen Raheel Sharif on high profile trips to Kabul, Washington and London.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Malala Yousafzai's Nobel Prize put further pressure on Pakistan to bring her attackers to justice

His globe-trotting was seen by many as an attempt to reset Pakistan's mostly troubled relations with Afghanistan and the US and to pre-empt a possible flow of militants from Afghanistan into Pakistan after Nato's departure from the region.

The Taliban attack on the Army Public Public School in Peshawar in December underlined the group's aversion to education - the reason why they shot Malala Yousafzai in the first place.

Ms Yousafzai had received the Nobel Peace Prize just a week before the massacre. Her image as an emerging international celebrity drew attention to Pakistan's failure to arrest the culprits.

Pressure for results

Then in September, army spokesman Major-General Asim Bajwa made a triumphant announcement that 10 men had been arrested in connection with the attacks.

No details were given about the alleged attackers, except the charge that they were affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and had more than 20 other social and political activists on their hit list.

Major-General Bajwa did not say when and where the men had been arrested or how they were linked to the attack on Ms Yousafzai.

Furthermore, the list of men arrested did not include the names of those the civilian authorities had earlier identified as Ms Yousafzai's attackers.

The shroud of secrecy around the trial and convictions has raised serious doubts over whether these men were really who the authorities said they were, and whether they did what the authorities say they did.

Now, with the revelation that we were in the dark even about how many people had been convicted, those doubts are not likely to fade away.