HAD there been any hesitation in recognising that the constitutionally empowered military courts system hastily set up in the wake of December’s Peshawar school massacre is one that is abhorrent and in violation of the most basic principles of justice, then the revelation that six accused have been sentenced to death and a seventh sentenced to life imprisonment should extinguish even that vestige of doubt.
Consider first the form as announced over the DG ISPR’s Twitter account — “#Mil Courts: Army Chief confirms death sentence of 6 hard core terrorists tried by the recently established mil courts.”
There is surely something terribly wrong with a judicial system in which the first time the public learns about death sentences for six individuals is via a press officer of a non-judicial head of a military institution. Are judges no longer allowed to speak via their judgements in even the most solemn of cases?
There are then the substantive issues. Who are these men? What crimes have they been accused of and now convicted for? What evidence was presented? What kind of legal representation was available to the accused? And what is the appeals process that is available to the convicted men?
All that is known, via an ISPR press release, is that “In view of the nature and gravity of offences preferred against each, 6 terrorists have been awarded death sentences and one life imprisonment by the military courts”.
Even that vague offering has a serious flaw. How were six of the accused deemed deserving of death, but one given life imprisonment for the same category of crimes?
From a sceptical point of view, could it be that one of the first batch of convicts was ‘only’ sentenced to life imprisonment to try and dispel the notion that the new military courts are little more than execution chambers?
This week’s announcement also grimly underlines the basic problem with the new military courts — they are run by the military to try individuals accused by the military, with verdicts confirmed by the military.
Even allowing for all the problems of collecting evidence in war zones and on battlefields and the messy nature of counter-insurgencies, what has been done is nothing short of obliterating the very idea of justice, due process and a fair trial.
Who though should bear the ultimate responsibility? The military for seeking these sweeping powers, or the elected political leadership of this country for giving those powers to the military?
What is incontrovertible is that there would be no new military courts if the politicians had not agreed to pass the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.
What is also true is that nothing — nothing at all — has been done to try and reform the broken criminal justice system in the country. If the politicians don’t lead, will other institutions not try and grab more power?
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2015