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Military courts’ revival

Updated February 23, 2017

The desperately misguided quest of the PML-N government to revive military courts will continue today and, improbably, the government may be contriving to make a terrible situation worse.

A parliamentary meeting has been brought forward and the government’s intense lobbying will now take place with news of a new military operation dominating the national discourse overnight. The government may try and bulldoze the principled and sensible parliamentary resistance among elements of the opposition, but what would be even more shocking is if the government makes a rumoured concession to the religious right on the issue.

As reported in the media and openly acknowledged by the JUI-F in particular, the resistance on the religious right to military courts is not because the courts are anathema to the rule of law, but that they were instituted only for religiously inspired and sectarian militants. The religious right is demanding that if military courts are to be revived, no explicit reference is to be made to religion or sectarianism in the framework for the courts.

The context is vitally important. In the wake of the APS Peshawar attack, when the military leadership effectively forced parliament to give the army powers to try civilians for terrorism-related offences, the only resistance that parliament was able to put up was to keep the focus of military courts somewhat narrow — permitting only the trial of so-called jet-black terrorists waging war in the name of religion or sectarianism.

The explicit reference was introduced to prevent the military from expanding the use of the courts to other civilians deemed to be waging war on the state, such as the Baloch separatists. Perhaps the MQM too was concerned that, with the Karachi operation still relatively new and allegations about the party’s links to India being aired publicly, political parties could be targeted by military courts. Other parties may have had similar concerns about legitimate political or regional struggles being caught in the fundamentally undemocratic pincers of the military courts.

It is vital to stress that military courts were a distortion of the Constitution and the rule of law that no democratic society ought to have inflicted on it.

There is no scenario in which such courts are justifiable. But that does not mean military courts cannot be made even worse in practice. The government’s craven capitulation to the military would be compounded if it succumbs to political pressure from the religious right to exclude the specific references to religiously inspired or sectarian militancy in a revived framework for military courts.

From a slippery slope to the floodgates opening, the changes being demanded by the religious right are unconscionable and have frightening implications. The PML-N government will be no less to blame if military courts are revived, especially in an expanded form.

Consider what the government could have achieved if it had directed its lobbying efforts towards criminal justice reforms.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2017