Crime & Justice

Pakistan's military courts draw political support, concerns

By Adeel Saeed

Suspected militants are presented to media in Jamrud Tehsil, Khyber Agency, March 3. Pakistani lawmakers in March voted overwhelmingly to give the country's military courts two more years to try civilian terrorism suspects. [Abdul Majeed/AFP]

Suspected militants are presented to media in Jamrud Tehsil, Khyber Agency, March 3. Pakistani lawmakers in March voted overwhelmingly to give the country's military courts two more years to try civilian terrorism suspects. [Abdul Majeed/AFP]

PESHAWAR -- Pakistan's military courts will continue trying civilians accused on terrorism charges -- a move authorities say is necessary to ensure speedy trials in matters of national security.

The Senate (upper chamber of parliament) March 28 passed the 28th Constitutional Amendment Bill with a two-thirds majority, a week after the National Assembly, the lower chamber, voted overwhelmingly to revive the military courts.

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain gave his assent to the law March 31, extending the military courts for a period of two years, effective retroactively from January 7.

Pakistan set up the special military courts in January 2015 for a period of two years with the objective of conducting speedy trials of accused terrorists. Such trials tended to drag on for years in the civilian system.

At that time, the government also ended its moratorium on capital punishment, which dated back to 2008.

The decision came after terrorists slaughtered more than 140 children and teachers at Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.

Broad political, public support

The reinstatement of military courts has received broad political and public support, but drew resistance from rights groups.

"Military courts are the need of the hour to eradicate the menace of terrorism," Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said in a March 12 interview on Radio Pakistan.

The country faces unusual circumstances and therefore needs unusual decisions to overcome these problems, he said.

Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid echoed those sentiments in a speech to the National Assembly March 21.

The decision to extend Pakistan's military courts resulted from the "extraordinary situation and circumstances" that "demand continuation of the special measures adopted for expeditious disposal of certain offenses", he said.

Some 87% of Pakistanis favour the re-establishment of military courts to improve law and order and eliminate terrorism, according to a survey conducted by Gallup and Gilani Pakistan.

The survey was carried out March 6-13 among 1,833 men and women in all four provinces.

Consensus a 'big success'

"It is a big success that the government achieved the consensus of almost all political parties to pass the bill," said Sardar Aurangzeb Nalota, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) parliamentary leader in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

"The parliamentarians agreed that the revival of military courts was necessary to eradicate terrorists," he told Pakistan Forward.

All political parties, except the Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), voted in favour of the bill, Nalota said.

"To develop a consensus, the government held multiple sessions with leaders of different political parties and convinced them to revive military courts for trial of hard-core terrorists," he said.

"Revival of military courts is a very appropriate decision ... because the country is facing an extraordinary situation," said Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah of Peshawar, a former security secretary for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Pakistan needs such extraordinary measures to win its on-going war against terrorism, he said.

"The two-year tenure of military courts saw the execution of some very hard-core terrorists, and this needed to be done if we want to expunge miscreants from our soil," he told Pakistan Forward.

In the first two years, military courts convicted 274 hard-core militants, sentencing 161 to death and 113 to lengthy terms, mostly life imprisonment, according to Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).

So far, 17 of the convicts on death row have been hanged, Dawn reported March 13.

'Misdirected' struggle for justice

Rights groups, however, have expressed concerns over the legislation.

"The nationwide concern at a number of recent attacks in the country seems to have once again been misdirected toward a seriously flawed counter-terrorism strategy that weakens the rule of law and the struggle for justice," International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Asia Director Sam Zarifi said in a statement in March.

"Pakistan must reject this counter-productive strategy and instead strengthen its judicial process and law enforcement in line with its domestic law and international obligations," he said.

"The Pakistani government has a responsibility to prosecute those committing violent attacks, but secret, rights-violating military courts raise serious questions as to whether justice is being done," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in March.

"Generating confidence in Pakistan's criminal justice system and abiding by the rule of law means bringing those responsible for militant attacks before independent and impartial civilian courts," he said.

"The primary concern of critics was the mystery surrounding military court trials: no one knows who the convicts are, what charges have been brought against them, or what the accused's defence is against the allegations levelled," Dawn reported March 21.

In response to such criticisms and concerns, Shah said, "The objective behind the establishment of military courts is to dispose of cases of hard-core terrorists that other courts cannot do."

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