ISLAMABAD: The government on Monday signalled its intent to revive controversial military courts for trial of civilians accused of terrorism, saying it had begun consultations for bringing a constitutional amendment for the purpose.
“The federal government has already initiated consultations for a constitutional amendment to continue the military courts for a period which is agreed by all political parties represented in parliament,” Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement after a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign policy and security.
The meeting was attended by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ISI Director Gen Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, Special Assistant to the PM Tariq Fatemi and National Security Adviser retired Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua.
The 21st constitutional amendment under which the military tribunals were established in January 2015 expired on Saturday after a two-year sunset clause contained in the legislation took effect.
During their tenure the military courts tried 274 cases of terrorism and sentenced 161 terrorists to death, whereas another 116 were given varying jail terms, mostly life sentences.
Twelve convicts have been executed so far.
The end of the military courts was generally welcomed by all major political parties and civil rights activists, who had, however, at the same time expressed concern over the government’s failure to bolster the Anti-Terrorism Act for effectively succeeding the ad hoc arrangement of military courts after the end of their constitutionally mandated term.
Political parties mull reaction to the government’s initiative
The 21st amendment was unanimously approved by both houses of parliament in the aftermath of the Dec 2014 Army Public School tragedy.
The PM Office statement said the participants of the meeting praised the performance of the military courts for complementing Operation Zarb-i-Azb against terrorism.
The government’s statement about its plans for restoring the military courts stirred a fresh debate among political parties over the trial of terrorism suspects by the military. The political parties, which were apparently caught unawares by the move after the government initially allowed the legislation to lapse, betrayed confusion.
Spokesman for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government Mushtaq Ghani told journalists in Peshawar that the provincial administration was in favour of continuation of the military courts. But he later retracted the statement and said it was his personal opinion and the KP government would give its position later.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leader Shireen Mazari said her party would first like to study the government’s proposal.
“The government is simply doing what it always does; introducing and extending ordinances without any regard for reforming the criminal judicial system, which was the original intention of this whole exercise,” she said, adding that the PTI would first like to see a blueprint for the required legal reforms.
“Just extending the time frame will not do,” she cautioned.
Pakistan Peoples Party secretary general Farhatullah Babar said that since his party had not been consulted by the government so far, there had been no deliberations on the matter within the party. He said the PPP had a lot of reservations over the track record of the military courts during the last two years when they had not only failed to achieve the objective of their establishment, but also exceeded their mandate.
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Aitzaz Ahsan, talking to journalists at the Parliament House, said the PPP principally opposed military courts, but “we believe that without military courts terrorists involved in major cases like activist Sabeen Mahmood’s murder and Safoora Goth attack would have remained unpunished”.
Senator Tahir Mashhadi of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement said his party had also not been approached by the government as yet, but appeared open to considering the proposal.
“We have not seen any confirmed report, let’s see what is the idea; we are waiting for confirmation of the news, we will study what they are planning to do and what is their proposal before giving any detailed reaction,” he added.
National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq has, meanwhile, convened a meeting of the parliamentary party leaders in his chambers on Tuesday. It is expected that the matter will be raised.
Ms Mazari said she and her party colleague Shah Mehmood Qureshi would talk to the opposition parties for coming up with a joint stand.
Published in Dawn January 10th, 2017