ISLAMABAD: The power of military courts to try civilians is likely to end in a month as the government does not appear interested in extending the relevant amendment to the Constitution, which will lapse on Jan 2.
On Jan 3 last year, parliament passed the 21st Constitution Amendment, bringing the civilian suspects of terrorism under the jurisdiction of the military courts which are otherwise meant to try personnel of the armed forces for disciplinary reasons or for offences mentioned in the schedule of the Pakistan Army Act (PAA) 1952.
According to Minister of State for Interior Affairs Baleeghur Rehman, “since the situation is under control now, there is no need to extend such wartime legislation”.
The amendment extended the scope of scheduled offences of the PAA. It envisaged trial by military courts of those who claim or are known to belong to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of religion or a sect, those who take up weapons or wage a war against Pakistan or attack the armed forces or law-enforcement agencies; those involved in kidnapping for ransom; possession or storing of explosives, firearms or suicide jackets; using or designing vehicles for terrorist acts; providing or receiving funding from any foreign or local sources for terrorism; “overawing” the state or any section of the public or a sect or religious minority and creating terror or insecurity in or outside the country.
No move yet to extend 21st Amendment
Earlier, civilians could only face a court martial if they “seduce, or attempt to seduce” persons subject to the PAA or if they were working at military installations or employed at temporary military setups.
Another anti-terrorism law, the Protection of Pakistan Act (PoPA), also lapsed in July after completing its two-year term. The government was initially indecisive about its renewal but days before PoPA’s expiry it constituted a high-level team to discuss the revival of the legislation with the political parties.
The amendment related to the military courts was passed with a sunset clause of two years.
While the law is set to expire in a month, there is no progress in the law ministry for extending it.
An official of the ministry told Dawn that the authorities were awaiting a signal from the interior ministry for preparing the draft of a bill in this regard.
He said the interior ministry was monitoring progress on the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism and the military courts had been given the powers to try civilians as its part.
“The interior ministry has consulted the law ministry over the military courts and the latter advised it to forward a written proposal if it wanted to extend the powers of military court for a certain period,” he said.
According to him, after the interior ministry submits the proposal, the law ministry will begin the process to table the bill in parliament.
Political circles, however, believe that the government is not in a position to extend the military courts’ powers without the support of other parties.
The opposition PPP’s Senator Saeed Ghani, when contacted, said the powers of military courts given under the 21st Amendment could not be extended without the approval by a two-thirds majority in parliament, which the ruling PML-N lacked.
“The PML-N government has not made any contact with the PPP to get its support,” he said and added that the government appeared to be unwilling to extend the tenure of the military courts for civilians’ court martial.
“Last time the PPP was also reluctant to support this law but we were under pressure due to the situation and the terrorist attack on the [Peshawar] Army Public School (APS),” he said.
“I don’t think that today one can justify such legislation.”
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) spokesman Fawad Chaudhry said the party would place the issue on the agenda of its next meeting.
He said the government had failed to effectively implement NAP and it should be monitored by a parliamentary committee instead of the interior ministry. The matter of the military courts should also be brought before such a panel, he suggested.
Sources in the interior ministry said the authorities concerned were looking towards the military authorities to ascertain their stance on the issue. The ministry, meanwhile, will continue handling the cases subject to the PAA till the expiry of the law.
The military spokesman, when contacted, did not comment.
Military sources, on the other hand, claimed that the government was unwilling to give powers to the military courts even two years back and the APS incident had forced it to take the decision. They said that the amendment had been introduced with the sunset clause to give time to the government to improve the criminal justice system. However, the government did not upgrade the system and after the expiry of the law, the suspects of terrorism would be tried by the same courts, the sources alleged.
Minister of State Baleeghur Rehman, however, claimed that the law and order situation had improved manifold and there was no need to extend the military courts’ powers.
In December 2014, the situation was entirely different, he said, adding that it was easy for the PML-N to persuade other political parties to support the amendment then but it appeared to be difficult now.
Even otherwise, the situation is under control now and I don’t think there is a need to extend the law, he said.
Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2016