THOUGH the army may not seem to be too enthusiastic about changing its internal justice system, the Supreme Court has asked the government to consider amendments to the Pakistan Army Act, 1952, to allow for documents of the field general court martial to be made available to the accused. The apex court said this while hearing two related petitions concerning the army’s internal judicial process on Monday. As per the current practice, convicts or the accused in military courts do not get copies of judgments or depositions immediately, which makes appealing decisions difficult. The petitioner also claims that taking a statement from an accused under oath in a court martial and using it against him as evidence clashes with the Qanoon-i-Shahadat, an assertion some legal experts agree with as, according to them, the investigators need to establish independently whether the charge is correct. The court adjourned the hearing of the petitions for three weeks on Tuesday due to the Ministry of Defence’s plea for more time.
Constitutionally, every citizen has the right to a fair trial and due process. Considering the SC’s observations, the Army Act should be amended to bring it in line with constitutional requirements; providing the accused with judgments and other details immediately would be a first step. As far as the appeals process is concerned, some lawyers recommend that a special appellate tribunal be constituted that features members from outside the military hierarchy, as it is highly unlikely that serving officers will take decisions that differ from those of the high command. If military trials cannot become more open, at least the appeals process should be made more transparent. The accused also need to have access to the defence counsel of their choice. While the army’s concerns about internal discipline may be valid to an extent, these have to be balanced with other factors, such as constitutional requirements and respect for fundamental rights. Also, as the SC observed on Monday, if the air force and navy have made certain amendments to their internal judicial processes, there is no reason why the army cannot do the same.