Pakistan Says Court Has Freed 8 of 10 Accused in Attack on Malala Yousafzai
LONDON — Pakistani officials said Friday that a court had released eight of the 10 men accused of conspiring in the shooting of the schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai, in an admission that brought new scrutiny of Pakistan’s faltering efforts to try Islamist militants in the courts.
The men had been charged with organizing the 2012 attack on Ms. Yousafzai, who was shot in the head as she traveled to school in the northwestern Swat Valley. She survived her injuries and went on to become a global symbol of defiance and an advocate for the education of girls, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in December.
Although the Taliban gunmen were believed to have fled to neighboring Afghanistan, the authorities announced the arrest of 10 men and put them on trial in April at a military-run internment center in Swat. The media and the public were barred from the hearings.
Malala Yousafzai, who is now 17, was shot in the head in October 2012 when she was returning home from school with her classmates on a bus.
When the trial ended on April 30, a prosecutor told reporters that all 10 had confessed to a role in the attack, and the police said they had been convicted and imprisoned for 25 years each.
A 2009 documentary by Adam B. Ellick profiled Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl whose school was shut down by the Taliban. Ms. Yousafzai was shot by a gunman on Oct. 9, 2012.
But on Friday, when the court published its written judgment, it revealed that only two of the accused men, identified as Izharullah Rehman and Israrur Rehman, had been convicted and imprisoned, sentenced to life. The eight others had been freed.
“They were released for lack of evidence,” said Azad Khan, the regional deputy police chief, adding that the government would probably appeal the decision.
Mr. Khan emphasized that there was “no conspiracy or mystery” in the case and that the initial, mistaken reports of the convictions had stemmed from the secretive nature of the trial.
Still, news of the eight men’s release offered an illustration of the problems facing Pakistan’s judicial system, where incompetence, intimidation and expediency can conspire to frustrate justice in even the highest-profile cases.
Pakistani courts frequently try Islamist militants behind closed doors to avoid threats against judges, police officers and witnesses. But 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.
Conditions are particularly difficult in the Swat Valley, where Ms. Yousafzai lived until the 2012 attack, because of continuing insecurity and because civilian authority is largely subordinate to the military, which mounted a major antimilitant operation in the valley in 2009.
In January, Pakistan’s Parliament voted to hand the military sweeping powers to try suspected Taliban fighters. In April, the military announced its first sentences in that system: six men condemned to death, and a seventh sentenced to life imprisonment.
But the military’s authority to hand down such strong sentences was challenged in the civilian courts, and the Supreme Court ruled that the sentences could not be carried out. Legal arguments on the validity of the military courts continued this week.
After the 2012 Taliban attack, Ms. Yousafzai was flown to Britain for emergency treatment. Her global celebrity as a symbol of defiance against the Taliban, and as a best-selling author and speaker, was cemented in December when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside an Indian rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi, and became the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.
Now 17, Ms. Yousafzai lives with her family in Birmingham, England, where she is attending secondary school. Continuing Taliban threats have prevented her from returning to Pakistan, although she says she would like to go home.
Despite the strong military presence in Swat, militants continue to carry out sporadic attacks, often stealing into the valley from their hiding places across the border in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
The Pakistani authorities say they believe that the four prime suspects in the attack on Ms. Yousafzai — the Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah; his spokesman, Sirajuddin; Habib ur-Rehman; and a militant known by a single name, Abdullah — are hiding in Afghanistan.
Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.
A version of this article appears in print on June 6, 2015, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Pakistan Sets 8 of 10 Free in Shooting of Schoolgirl. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe