ISLAMABAD: The persisting impasse over the issue of the revival of military courts deepened on Wednesday when the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) announced that it would not attend Thursday’s (today) meeting of the parliamentary leaders convened by the National Assembly speaker in an effort to develop consensus on the issue.

The decision to stay away from the meeting was announced by PPP’s parliamentary leader Syed Naveed Qamar and MNA Shazia Marri while talking to reporters after a meeting of the sub-committee formed by the speaker under Law Minister Zahid Hamid at the previous meeting to “fine-tune” the draft of a constitutional amendment bill seeking a three-year extension for the military courts.

Ms Marri, who had represented the party at the sub-committee meeting, said she had come out of the meeting after registering “our objections and reservations” over the government-drafted amendment bill.

Besides the PPP, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) also objected to the new draft, alleging that the government had changed it without taking them into confidence.

International jurists body opposes revival of military tribunals

The PTI’s Dr Shireen Mazari, who had represented her party at the meeting, said the draft circulated by the government was different from that of the 21st Constitution Amendment, under which the military courts had been set up after a national consensus for a period of two years in 2015.

Both the PPP and the PTI have objections to the government’s move to amend Article 175(3) of the Constitution which had allowed the military courts to hold trial of persons “belonging to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of religion or a sect”.

In the new draft, the government has removed the words “using the name of religion or sect”, creating a fear among political parties that the law could be used against them for “arm-twisting or political victimisation”.

The PPP and the PTI say the government has in fact changed the draft only to appease its ally Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F).

And their notion proved true when JUI-F member of the committee Naeema Kishwar told reporters that her party was ready to support the draft in the present form. She categorically stated that the JUI-F would not support the amendment bill if the draft was changed to the previous one.

Ms Kishwar, however, said she had suggested to the government that the military courts should only be given the extension of one-and-a-half years, instead of three years.

“There is no use of going to Thursday’s meeting as we have already heard the same story from the government side several times,” said Naveed Qamar while talking to Dawn.

The PPP leader was of the opinion that the government was not serious about resolving the matter, which was evident from the fact that it had amended the draft only to appease its ally.

He said the PPP would never become part of any law which could be used against politicians. Declaring that his party would not participate in the meetings unless the government developed a “national consensus” on the issue, he announced that the PPP would soon itself convene a multi-party conference on the issue of military courts.

Mr Qamar said his party had supported the 21st constitutional amendment under duress. How the PPP could endorse revival of the military courts when the result of the previous such exercise remained zero, he added.

When contacted, PPP’s Shazia Marri said she had told the committee that discussion on the draft law was “premature” and would be of no use without first agreeing on principles. She said she had protested at the meeting over the government’s move to “unilaterally” change the previously-agreed draft.

Talking briefly to reporters, Law Minister Zahid Hamid said two political parties had expressed their reservations over the draft, whereas one party had endorsed it. He said the process of consultations was still on.

Military courts were established and granted permission to try civilians charged with terrorism in Jan 2015 after a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in Dec 2014.

The courts have been non-functional since Jan 7 after the expiry of the two-year constitutional cover.

ICJ reaction

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said in a statement on Wednesday that the Pakistan government must not bring back the military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offences.

“The use of military courts to try civilians is inconsistent with international standards,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia Director, adding: “Evidence from practice clearly shows that not only have military trials of civilians been blatantly unjust and in violation of the right to a fair trial, they have also been ineffective in reducing the very real threat of terrorism in Pakistan.”

The ICJ said the new proposed law would also give the military courts jurisdiction over any offence considered to be an act of terrorism, a broader mandate than the 2015 constitutional amendment, which was applicable only to “terrorism motivated by religion or sectarianism” and where the accused were “members of proscribed organisations”.

“Bringing back military courts deflects attention from the real issue: the government’s complete failure to enact necessary reforms to strengthen the criminal justice system in the two years military courts were in operation,” Mr Zarifi said.

The Pakistan parliament must stand up to the executive in defence of the rights of all people in Pakistan, instead of allowing the administration to bring back — and even expand — a discredited and abusive process, the ICJ statement said.

Established in 1952, the ICJ comprises 60 eminent judges and lawyers from all regions of the world and promotes and protects human rights through the rule of law by using its unique legal expertise to develop and strengthen national and international justice systems.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2017