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Military courts

Updated March 18, 2017

Nine years since the latest transition to democracy began, the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan are set to take the country another step backwards.

The reinstitution of military courts for civilians accused of terrorism is a democratic tragedy presented as a negotiated success — what the PPP and its allies have negotiated with the government amounts to the most feeble of excuses for what will become a continuing, deadly miscarriage of justice.

Simply because the collective institutional wisdom of the country has decided that, at this juncture in the country’s history, the responsibility of sustaining an effective criminal justice system must be outsourced partly to the military does not make it a moral or principled decision.

Indeed, politician after politician has argued for the necessity of military courts rather than address the inevitable damage they have caused and will continue to cause to the democratic project. Like the 21st Amendment before it, the soon-to-be-enacted 23rd Amendment will forever be a testament to the failure of this country’s elected leadership to stand true to the principles and democratic spirit of the Constitution.

From here, once military courts are revived, the path ahead is uncertain, at least for criminal justice reforms and the salvaging of a broken civilian judicial system that made recourse to military courts justifiable to many.

In the first stage, there will likely be legal challenges to the constitutionality of the amendment, but relief will be very difficult to win. While the Supreme Court does have a number of new justices who had not yet been elevated to the highest court when the 21st Amendment was contested, overturning a full court judgement will be extremely difficult.

Barring an unexpected change of opinion in the Supreme Court, then, military courts for civilians accused of terrorism will be the law of the land until at least the summer of 2019. 

The second stage is where even greater uncertainty lies. Perhaps the collective political leadership will take seriously its responsibilities — and renewed pledge — to reform the criminal justice system over the next two years.

It is possible that the stipulation for the formation of a parliamentary oversight committee in the agreement between the government and opposition parties will lead to a raft of sensible and much-needed judicial reforms. From the 18th Amendment to the continuing quest for electoral reforms, parliament can deliver — if the leaderships of the various parties are interested in delivering change or feel the pressure to do so.

The other possibility is that the very formation of yet another parliamentary committee is a signal of the lack of seriousness of parliamentarians. After all, other than vague promises to rehabilitate a broken justice system, there were no solid suggestions.

The question remains: will 2017-2019 be a repeat of the lack of progress on judicial reforms witnessed over the last two years, or will the right kind of changes be effected?

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2017