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ISLAMABAD: The controversial special powers given to the army to establish tribunals for trying civi­lians on terrorism charges are set to end after two years as the sunset clause contained in the legislation covering trials by military courts takes effect on Saturday (today).

The special powers were given to the army under the 21st constitutional amendment and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill, 2015, enacted by parliament on Jan 6, 2015, in the aftermath of the Army Public School tragedy. The two houses of parliament had on that occasion voted unanimously for the legislation despite fears among the lawmakers that the tribunals they were authorising would not be able to ensure due process to the suspects and might undermine democracy.

The legislation contained a sunset clause of two years from the date of enactment.

There was no formal statement either from the government or the military announcing the end of the extraordinary powers for trial of civilians by the military.

An interior ministry source said terrorism cases in future would be taken up by antiterrorism courts that were mandated to conduct expeditious trials.

Another source confided that the interior ministry had made a “belated and half-hearted” attempt to earn a renewal of the law providing for the military courts, but that couldn’t happen.

Another key antiterrorism law — Protection of Pakistan Act — also expired last year without any succeeding arrangement.

Political parties and legal experts criticised the government for not undertaking the needed legal reforms to address the reasons that had necessitated the setting up of military courts.

“There was a reason why the 21st amendment had a sunset clause in it; so that the criminal justice system could be reformed in this time. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t moved an inch in this regard,” said Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leader Shireen Mazari.

Legal expert and former law minister Ahmer Bilal Soofi said: “The military courts achieved their objective partly in terms of giving sentences to people, but their real purpose was to act as an incentive to upgrade the existing Anti-Terrorism Act. It was an inbuilt legislative inducement. But that did not happen. The long-term objective was not achieved.”

International Commission of Jurists’ Asia Director Sam Zarifi said: “The lapse of the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians is a step in the right direction, but unsurprisingly there is no sign of the promised reforms to strengthen the ordinary criminal justice system to effectively handle terrorism-related cases.”

Military courts began trials in February 2015. The first convictions were announced two months later in April and the last ones were pronounced on Dec 28, 2016. The courts, which had been given 275 cases, during their two-year tenure sentenced 161 terrorists to death, whereas another 116 were given varying jail terms, mostly life sentences. Only 12 convicts have been executed so far.

The establishment of the military courts was initially challenged in the Supreme Court. The petitioners had contended that the 21st amendment was an expression of no-confidence on prevailing judiciary, a violation of basic human rights and against the basic structure of the Constitution. The petitions were dismissed by the apex court. Subsequently, about 27 convicts challenged their sentencing by the military courts alleging that they did not receive a fair trial — as guaranteed by Article 10A of the Constitution — as they were neither given copies of the verdict nor were they afforded the opportunity to engage counsel to defend themselves.

“The statistics on military courts speak for themselves – something like over 90 per cent conviction rate – and the fact that they lacked transparency makes due process even more unlikely,” Sara Belal, Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan, said.

The trials resulted in convictions, imprisonment of and death sentences against terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaatul Ahrar, Toheedwal Jihad Group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Jehad-i-Islami, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi Al-Alami, Lashkar-i-Islami, and Sipah-i-Sahaba.

Some of the well-known terrorism cases in which sentences were handed down included the Army Public School, Peshawar, massacre, Safoora bus attack, killing of activist Sabeen Mehmood, attack on journalist Raza Rumi, Bannu jailbreak, Parade Lane Mosque, Rawalpindi, bombing, killing of foreign tourists at Nanga Parbat base camp, attack on a bus carrying Shia pilgrims in Mastung, shooting down of an army helicopter in Orakzai agency, attack on a PIA aircraft in Peshawar, Marriott Hotel bombing, Karachi airport attack, sectarian murders and attacks on law enforcement personnel and their offices, polio teams and educational institutions.

Fareed Piracha, a Jamaat-i-Islami leader, whose party had abstained from the voting on the 21st amendment in parliament, felt relieved that the military courts had come to an end. “It is a good development,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2017

Comments (19) Closed

71 Kaganda Jan 07, 2017 08:48am

Let us know, what we achieved.

MALEEHA Jan 07, 2017 09:01am

Seriously--2 years and no Improvement in Criminal Justice System...

nadeem Jan 07, 2017 09:07am

Let us know what we would not have achieved without military courts!!!!Peace

Bhatti Jan 07, 2017 09:31am

They got job done!

Zarbakht Jan 07, 2017 11:14am

Govt should have introduced much needed reforms in law to curb the menace of terrorism well before culmination period of special military courts. Military courts did a fine job by giving strict punishments to terrorists who killed innocent people, either their tenure should be increased or reforms be made in judicial system for speedy disposal of terrorists.

abadshahuk Jan 07, 2017 11:25am

sad day

Talhat Jan 07, 2017 11:30am

Well done to military courts........Job done.

Khanm Jan 07, 2017 11:35am

Interesting comments know why we did not achieve any thing cos was created for a political reason for fo speedy and swift justice...

Jawad Asif Jan 07, 2017 11:45am

So now the justice is given back in the hands of thugs!!

Lets hope and pray that our supreme judiciary provide quick justice to the people..of which there is very less chance.

El Cid Jan 07, 2017 11:50am

Never again should the curtain ever again rise on such an abomination.

Boghani Jan 07, 2017 01:07pm

@nadeem some of the cases prosecutor wouldn't even take had to go to military court. example safura Karachi and many more.

Lafanga Jan 07, 2017 03:22pm

In Pakistan its one step forward and two steps back. Ever wonder why PMLN never agreed to rangers doing ops in Punjab?

Smazr Jan 07, 2017 03:53pm

With the type of terrorists that Pakistan has unfortunately, we need military courts. Asma Jehangir is right on technical points, but the normal Pakistani justice system cannot cope with these Hardcore criminals.

Zaheer Hassan Jan 07, 2017 05:54pm

It is unfortunate that the very popular special powers among the nation given to the army to establish tribunals for trying civi­lians on terrorism charges are set to end. Nobody made it controversial except the government itself. I fear that it will give rise to more terrorism which Pakistan can ill afford. It would be a terrible mistake to let it expire.

Qamar Jan 07, 2017 08:51pm

Back to business as usual!!!

Ali Jan 07, 2017 08:56pm

Politicians may not want military courts to try terrorists, but parliament has failed to legislate tough anti-terrorist laws, failed to implement the National Action Plan and civilian courts have failed to convict terrorists, even when they admit mass killings?

Military courts gave time for the government to get its act together, but it has failed to do so thus far. The people don't want political slogans, they want action and results to end extremism and terrorism which is destroying Pakistan.

Joseph Jan 07, 2017 09:24pm

Federal Govt is numb on most of the matters, in each and every subject 'vested interests'exists.Even laws are made to suit their interests,and ordinance issued to confort them.Disappointments & hopeless attitude is common in street talks,people are frustrated due to dirty and garbage all over main roads and streets,the Sindh Govt remained at loggerheads with LGs,and not prepared to accommodate the local govt with Sindh affairs,obviously they called Chinese Corp to clean the city which already facing shortage of water. So far nothing in sight to appreciate.

Danish Jan 07, 2017 10:19pm

Big achievement of banned outfits through the active support of their political allies.

Make Pakistan great Jan 08, 2017 01:30am

@Zaheer Hassan

This only goes to prove that those in the government are themselves afraid of the terrorists. So they don't want to legislate anything that works effectively against the terrorists. Two years ago, the government was in a very tight spot due to the massacre at APS, Peshawar, and had to agree to the establishment of military courts. But thereafter, the government did every thing in its power to thwart the working of the military courts. The result is there for every one see. Two years on, the government will never agree to extend the tenure of the military courts.