Final bell tolls for Military Courts

ISLAMABAD: The lease provided to the army to maintain law and order by delivering swift accountability through the establishment of Military courts comes to an end today.

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The legislation was passed for fixed time duration enacted by parliament on Jan 6, 2015.

The “special” powers were given to the army under the 21st constitutional amendment and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2015, in the aftermath of the Army Public School tragedy. The two houses of parliament had on that occasion voted unanimously for the legislation despite fears among the lawmakers that the tribunals they were authorising would not be able to ensure due process to the suspects and might undermine democracy bringing the current chairman of senate Raza Rabbani to tears whilst claiming, ‘shame to vote against conscience’.

There has yet to be a formal statement from the government or the military on the issue.

An interior ministry source said terrorism cases in future would be taken up by antiterrorism courts that were mandated to conduct expeditious trials.

Another source confided that the interior ministry had made a “belated and half-hearted” attempt to earn a renewal of the law providing for the military courts, but that couldn’t happen.

Another key antiterrorism law — Protection of Pakistan Act — also expired last year without any succeeding arrangement.

Military courts began trials in February 2015. The first convictions were announced two months later in April and the last ones were pronounced on Dec 28, 2016. The courts, which had been given 275 cases, during their two-year tenure sentenced 161 terrorists to death, whereas another 116 were given varying jail terms, mostly life sentences. Only 12 convicts have been executed so far.

The establishment of the military courts was initially challenged in the Supreme Court. The petitioners had contended that the 21st amendment was an expression of no-confidence on prevailing judiciary, a violation of basic human rights and against the basic structure of the Constitution. The petitions were dismissed by the apex court. Subsequently, about 27 convicts challenged their sentencing by the military courts alleging that they did not receive a fair trial — as guaranteed by Article 10A of the Constitution — as they were neither given copies of the verdict nor were they afforded the opportunity to engage counsel to defend themselves.

“But if the civilian judicial system fails to perform, and things go back as they were before 2015, we may have no choice but to clamor for a similar amendment,” said human rights lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani.

A government spokesman and interior ministry officials did not respond to telephone calls to ask about the future of the courts.

A proposal to replace the military courts with “speedy-trial courts” was being considered, an interior ministry official said on condition of anonymity, without elaborating.

At the time the law was introduced, MPs and the military argued that civilian courts were too slow for terrorism cases needed to be dealt with swiftly, since many judges, fearful of revenge, were reluctant to deliver verdicts.

A total of 275 cases have been referred to the military courts and 12 convicts executed, the interior ministry says. The tribunals have sentenced 161 people to death and handed jail terms, mostly life sentences, to 116.

“Military courts should never have the jurisdiction to try civilians, nor should they ever have the authority to impose death sentences,” rights group Amnesty International said in a report after the courts were established.

At least 27 convicts filed appeals with civilian courts, alleging coercion of confessions and denial of access to lawyers and evidence, Reuters research and media reports show.

Besides the opaque nature of the military courts, they have diverted focus from the need for wider judicial reform, lawyers say.

“The end of military courts will make no huge difference, as they weren’t conceived to fix the criminal justice system or end terrorism,” lawyer Babar Sattar told Reuters.

The measure sought to keep the military from getting too entangled in the criminal justice process, he said, while hastening proceedings for those arrested in military operations.

“It was an instrument of convenience,” Sattar said.

The trials resulted in convictions, imprisonment of and death sentences against terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaatul Ahrar, Toheedwal Jihad Group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Jehad-i-Islami, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi Al-Alami, Lashkar-i-Islami, and Sipah-i-Sahaba.

Some of the well-known terrorism cases in which sentences were handed down included the Army Public School, Peshawar, massacre, Safoora bus attack, killing of activist Sabeen Mehmood, attack on journalist Raza Rumi, Bannu jailbreak, Parade Lane Mosque, Rawalpindi, bombing, killing of foreign tourists at Nanga Parbat base camp, attack on a bus carrying Shia pilgrims in Mastung, shooting down of an army helicopter in Orakzai agency, attack on a PIA aircraft in Peshawar, Marriott Hotel bombing, Karachi airport attack, sectarian murders and attacks on law enforcement personnel and their offices, polio teams and educational institutions.

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