ISLAMABAD: The legal cover given to military courts to try civilian terrorism suspects will expire on Jan 7.

The legal cover was given under the 21st Constitution Amendment Bill and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2015 having a two-year sunset clause on Jan 6 last year which was subsequently accorded an assent by the president.

Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani at the outset of the proceedings of the house on Friday invited the attention of the government towards the expiry of the 21st amendment on Jan 7. He observed that action was needed to avoid a legal vacuum.

He said the Senate had already passed the anti-terrorism bill and the witness protection bill to fill the gap. The two bills piloted by the leader of the house and the leader of the opposition have already been sent to the National Assembly.

He said the Senate had fulfilled its responsibility and it was now for the National Assembly to pass the bills. Leader of the House Raja Mohammad Zafarul Haq was not present when the remarks were made and the chairman repeated his words when Mr Haq arrived later.

Legal cover for military courts to try civilian suspects ends on Jan 7

“This bill is about military courts trying hardcore terrorists who kill Pakistanis...this is an important day for Pakistan when the nation decided that terrorists will be taken out from the roots,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had told the joint session of parliament at the passage of the laws to constitutionally protect the military courts for the trial of civilians suspected of terrorism in Jan 2015.

The preambles to both bills were largely identical. They said extraordinary situation and circumstances demanded “special measures for speedy trial of certain offences relating to terrorism, waging of war or insurrection against Pakistan” and the prevention of acts threatening the country’s security by “any terrorist or terrorist group using the name of religion or a sect and members of such armed groups, wings and militias.”

However, the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act added two key new sub-clauses to the existing act, describing people or groups that could be punished under the new law.

The sub-clauses (iii) and (iv), inserted in clause (d) of sub-section (1) of section 2, after sub-clause (ii) states: “Any person who is or claims or is known to belong to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of religion or a sect and raises arms or wage war against Pakistan or attacks the armed forces of Pakistan and law enforcement agencies, or attacks any civil or military installation in Pakistan or kidnaps any person for ransom or causes death of any person or injury, or is in possession, storage, fabrication or transport of explosives, firearms, instruments, articles, suicide jackets or vehicles designed to be used for terrorist acts, or receives or provides funding from any foreign or local sources for such illegal activities and acts or does any act to overawe the state or any section of the public or a sect or a religious minority or to create terror or insecurity in Pakistan or attempts to commit any of the said acts, within or outside Pakistan shall be punished under this act.”

Sub-clause (iv) says: “Any person who is or claims or is known to belong to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of religion or a sect, commits an offence mentioned at serial Nos. (i), (ii), (iii), (v), (vi), (vii), (viii)), (ix), (x), (xi) (xii), (xiii), (xv), (xvi), (xvii) and (xx) in the schedule to the Protection of Pakistan Act 2014 (X of 2014).”

Earlier, civilians could only face court martial if they “seduce, or attempt to seduce” persons subject to the PAA or if they were civilians who were working in army installations or employed at temporary military set-ups.

Under the amendment bill that is to expire in about three weeks, persons facing these offences could only be prosecuted with the prior sanction of the federal government. It also empowered the federal government to transfer any pending cases to the military courts, allowing the latter to continue with the trial.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2016