Why Are Malala's Attackers Walking Free?

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai delivers a speech during the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo December 10, 2014. Cornelius Poppe/Reuters

Earlier this month, Pakistani authorities revealed that eight of the ten men accused in the 2012 attack on Malala Yousafzai were acquitted, despite a previous announcement that all ten were sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

Malala's case is especially remarkable considering she won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, recognizing her advocacy for girls' education even after being shot in the head for her work.

The regional deputy police chief, Azad Khan, was quoted in theNew York Times saying that the men "were released for lack of evidence," chalking the verdict up to a failure of Pakistan's justice system. The trial was reportedly held in one of Pakistan's secretive anti-terrorism courts, where decisions are made behind closed doors in an attempt to protect judges.

According to the same article, "such trials are hampered by poor evidentiary standards and the security forces' widely documented pattern of rounding up suspects, sometimes on flimsy grounds, and of obtaining confessions through torture."

Yet the acquittal of Malala's attackers comes at a moment when Pakistan is coming under scrutiny from human rights organizations for the opposite reason: exceedingly harsh punishments—including nearly 140 executions in the last six months—from the same flawed anti-terror courts.

A recent New America Foundation paper details the recent changes in Pakistan's counterterrorism legal system, instituted following the December attack on a school that killed over 130 children. The paper argues that although the amendments have the "commendable goals of reducing delays and ensuring better security for judges trying terrorism cases, the legitimacy of the process has suffered from stripping away the traditional protections like an open trial, right to counsel, and burden of proof on the prosecution" that used to be afforded the accused.

While this disregard for the legal and human rights of terrorism suspects is a significant flaw in Pakistan's justice system, so too is the inequality evident in the handing down of sentences from these courts. While terrorism suspects are hanged "left, right and center," members of extremist groups who are suspects in cases of gender-based violence, like Malala's, or attacks on religious minority groups go unpunished.

According to International Crisis Group, women in Pakistan have long been the "principal victims of state policies to appease violent extremists." Despite a pledge from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on March 8, 2015, International Women's Day, that the "government would take all necessary legislative and administrative steps to protect and empower women," it is clear that such legal reforms are still lacking.

Pakistan's justice system is flawed in many ways, and reform is necessary to ensure the protection of the human and legal rights of the accused. Yet any reform must also address the unequal application of the law toward women and girls, like Malala, who are survivors of gender-based violence.

Catherine Powell is Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the CFR site.