ISLAMABAD: Opposition parties have come out with a new demand for a joint session of parliament for a comprehensive briefing on the progress of the Operation Zarb-i-Azb and the National Action Plan before moving forward on the issue of revival of the controversial military courts.
The opposition also wants Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to himself interact with political parties, if the government is serious about building a consensus on revival of military courts.
Talking separately to reporters after attending an in-camera briefing given by the government to the parliamentary leaders on the performance of military courts here on Tuesday, the members of the opposition and the ruling coalition parties said they had put “more questions” before the government which would be answered at the next meeting to be held on Jan 31.
The decision to hold the next meeting after two weeks has strengthened the general impression among political circles that all parties, including the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, are not willing to revive military courts and the matter is intentionally being dragged.
Parliamentary leaders’ meeting makes no headway on revival of military courts
According to sources, the opposition members during the meeting protested over the absence of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan as the briefing was given by Law Minister Zahid Hamid. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Law Barrister Zafarullah were also present in the meeting, which was presided over by National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq.
One of the opposition members said on condition of anonymity that the ministers present in the briefing failed to give any explanation for the recent controversial statements of the interior minister about distinction between sectarian and terrorist banned organisations. He said the law minister was found clueless on a number of issues which were not related to his ministry.
According to the sources, the participants were provided statistical data about performance of military and anti-terrorism courts (ATCs) over the last two years. They were told that the conviction rate of military courts remained 96.4 per cent and 161 convicts were awarded the death penalty by the courts.
On the other hand, the conviction rate of the ATCs remained 37pc in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 21pc in Punjab, nine per cent each in Islamabad and Sindh and only seven per cent in Balochistan.
Military courts were set up to try civilians accused of terrorism in January 2015, soon after a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, in which 144 people, mostly children, were killed by militants belonging to the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
The courts were given a two-year constitutional cover as both houses of parliament passed the 21st constitutional amendment with the inclusion of a sunset clause despite fears among lawmakers that the tribunals would not be able to ensure due process to suspects and might undermine democracy. The courts have been dysfunctional since Jan 7 after expiry of the two-year constitutional cover.
The government now wants a two-year extension for the military tribunals. Although the main political parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) — disagree with the government’s point of view, they are keeping the option of talks on the issue open.
Talking to Dawn, PTI vice-chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi termed the briefing “dissatisfactory” and said it had given birth to more questions.
He alleged that the government seemed to be non-serious on the issue as neither the prime minister nor the interior minister had so far approached the opposition parties to seek their cooperation.
The PTI leader said there was no doubt that military courts had performed well but... there had been “zero movement” on the part of the government as far as introduction of judicial reforms was concerned. He said the government had been allowed to set up military courts on the condition that it would introduce reforms in the justice system. “For how long the government will rely on military courts?” he asked.
Moreover, he said it was strange that the government wanted cooperation of the opposition parties though it had failed to muster support of its own allies, as both the JUI-F and the PkMAP had shown reluctance in supporting the military courts.
Similarly, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khurshid Shah said revival of military courts was not an issue between the government and the opposition, but a matter of “state security”. He also said the opposition had put more questions before the government for the next meeting.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman refused to talk to reporters, saying he could not do so as it was an in-camera meeting.
Chief of the Qaumi Watan Party Aftab Sherpao expressed concern over the absence of the interior minister from the crucial briefing.
The PM’s adviser Barrister Zafarullah, when contacted, said the government would take no step without national consensus on the issue. He said it was the right of the opposition parties to ask questions and the government’s responsibility to answer it.
Replying to a question about the opposition’s demand for a joint session of the parliament, he said the proposal would be discussed after return of the prime minister to the country.
The government has already summoned a session of the National Assembly on Jan 26.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2017