Military courts to try terror suspects: Political parties thrash out consensus after marathon meeting

Published December 25, 2014
PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks at a meeting of parliamentary leaders on Wednesday.—APP
PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks at a meeting of parliamentary leaders on Wednesday.—APP

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minis­ter Nawaz Sharif announced in a late-night address to the nation on Wednesday that the country’s political leadership had agreed to set up special military courts to try hardened terrorists.

The courts, which will be operative for two years, will require a constitutional amendment before they could start functioning.

The PM’s short speech was the culmination of a day filled with frantic discussions, press conferences and marathon meetings between leaders of all political parties and key stakeholders such as the military top brass. In it, he laid down the salient points that had been agreed upon by all sides and stressed that the government was committed to taking extraordinary measures to deal with the unprecedented situation the country was faced with.

All day on Wednesday, according to a participant of the meeting held at the PM House, the military leadership stressed the need to set up military courts as the justice system had failed to deliver.

In his remarks to the meeting, Army chief General Raheel Sharif referred to the 2009 Swat operation and said that terrorists with proven track records, captured by the army, had been freed by courts. “If this remains the state of affairs, there will be no use of the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan,” he was quoted as saying.

In response, opposition parties such as the PPP, MQM, Awami National Party and Jamaat-i-Islami recalled how such measures, which had also been adopted in the past for the speedy dispensation of justice, had been misused to target political workers.

Political response

While the meeting was still under way, the PTI media cell released a statement on behalf of Imran Khan, saying, “[Mr Khan] advocated formation of speedy courts in the present situation, within the ambit of the constitution, with a strict sunset clause and for specified terrorist acts clearly identified which the present system has proven incapable of dealing with effectively (sic).”

A PTI office-bearer told Dawn after the PM’s speech that since the demand for special trial courts came from the military leadership and the PML-N seemed to be in favour, “we decided to support the move after lots of internal deliberation. We didn’t want to be dubbed pro-Taliban, as has happened in the past.”

In the afternoon, MQM chief Altaf Hussain also held a lengthy press conference in Karachi where he declared that it was better to impose martial law than to set up military courts.

But his party was also won over, as the prime minister announced in his address that all parties at the consultation were on board over the plan agreed upon during the 11-hour session. A top government official privy to the meeting told Dawn that Mr Hussain finally gave his consent when contacted over the phone, at a time when everyone else had agreed to the proposals tabled.

In his reply to queries by reporters waiting at the PM’s Office, MQM leader Dr Farooq Sattar said that both the civilian and military leaderships had given assurances that the special courts would deal with religious extremists and militants only. “Yes, in the past, anti terrorism courts were used against the MQM, which is why the MQM leadership wanted special guarantees,” he said.

In the evening, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman too, after a meeting of prominent ulema, told reporters that certain political parties had expressed concerns over the idea of military courts. Recommending the banning of provocative religious literature and the forces behind such acts, he cautioned against a sweeping crackdown against seminaries.

PPP’s Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters that it wasn’t easy for the PPP to accept the proposal on military courts, but, “considering the ground realities, this seemed like the only way to deal with mindless terrorists”.

Opposition leader in the National Assembly Syed Khurshid Shah said that through this new system, “I am quite hopeful we will be able to bring terrorists to book because the existing justice system has failed to do so.” During the meeting, PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari – who is currently out of the country – was also taken on board by his party leaders.

But not everyone in the PPP was happy with the outcome of the all-parties’ conference. Senator Raza Rabbani, taking a principled stance, told Dawn: “I oppose the setting up of the military courts in the country; I do favour speedy trials, but it shouldn’t come through military courts.”

The ANP, which had initially opposed the formation of military courts, also agreed to the proposal after the PPP decided to support the move. ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan didn’t attend the meeting, but was contacted by his party colleague Afrasiab Khattak to seek his consent.

The PML-Q’s Senator Mushahid Hussain told Dawn that this was “a historic consensus”. Mr Hussain said the attorney general had told the meeting that the government was ready with the draft bill that would facilitate the setting up of military courts.

Resolution

The resolution issued after the all-parties conference, a copy of which is available with Dawn, laid out the various points on which agreement was reached. It contains as its primary thrust two clauses regarding the constitution of special military courts and captures the political agreement around making the necessary constitutional amendments to achieve this goal.

It then details 18 points of broad consensus, which the PM also listed during his speech. Most of these, such as the clause to strengthen and activate Nacta, counter hate speech and choke terrorists’ financial and communication networks, were reiterations of already established norms.

But certain points stood out as being new and hitherto unexplored within the counterterrorism framework. This included, chiefly, a commitment to “zero tolerance for militancy in parts of Punjab”, the first overt admission that militancy in that part of the country had gone unchecked for far too long. The specificity of this mention is stark since no other province is named like this in the rest of the document.

Another detail that stands out was the mention of the need for “tangible measures against abuse of internet and social media for terrorism”, indicating that the government and the military were looking to fight radicalisation on all fronts.

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2014

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