Slowly but stubbornly, and mostly out of view of the public, a debate on the revival of military courts for civilians appears to be edging towards a decision to reactivate the courts.
A draft law by the government that appears to have been shared with parliamentary leaders proposes, according to news reports, a three-year extension for military courts.
The last time this debate was held, shock and horror at the Army Public School attack in Peshawar overwhelmed broader constitutional and rule-of-law concerns. The country had been deeply wounded and a chaotic political leadership was unable to resist a determined military leadership’s demands for symbolic new powers in the name of fighting terrorism.
And while the Supreme Court did eventually uphold the hastily passed 21st Amendment, it was apparent that a conflicted court only envisaged military courts as a temporary aberration. Yet, a door to the normalisation of military courts had been opened — and sure enough, more than two years on, the military wants to keep its powers to try terrorism suspects in secrecy and with a minimum of due process.
What is deeply troubling about the push for the revival of military courts is that the PML-N government appears to have become a thoroughly willing accomplice in the further distortion of the Constitution. A government sworn to protect and uphold the Constitution appears blithely unaware, or perhaps deliberately ignorant, of its democratic responsibilities, opting to align itself with a militarised view of safety and security inside the country.
Perhaps the federal government is calculating that reviving military courts will create goodwill with the military leadership while causing minimal political damage, especially since a terrorism-weary public is supportive of extreme steps taken against terrorism suspects. But expediency and populism do not make the government right.
Indeed, it is possible to make a case that the government, having no interest or appetite for judicial reforms, sees military courts as an easy cover for its legislative and administrative failings. Instead of having to explain why justice system reforms have not featured on its agenda, the government is simply turning to military courts to plug the gaping hole in its record.
As the government works to assemble the coalition necessary to amend the Constitution once again, now is the time for conscientious and right-thinking parliamentarians to speak out and push back against the government’s plans.
Once an amendment bill is tabled in parliament, the individual will of parliamentarians will not matter; they will be required to vote in line with their parliamentary party leaders’ orders. Certainly, even in the government ranks, there will be unease at what is being attempted.
Military courts for civilians are a distortion of bedrock constitutional and democratic principles — and distortions, once introduced, have a way of growing in unpredictable ways. The fight against militancy will be a long one; it must be fought and won honourably.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2017