PESHAWAR: The Peshawar High Court on Thursday issued a stay order suspending the trial of a detained human rights defender and political activist, Idress Khattak, by a military court under the Pakistan Army Act, and issued a notice to the defence ministry for responding to a petition against that trial.

A bench consisting of Chief Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth and Justice Mohammad Nasir Mehfooz fixed Oct 21 for the next hearing into the petition filed on behalf of Idress Khattak by his brother, Dr Owais Khattak, with a request to declare his trial by a Field General Court Martial in Mangla illegal, without jurisdiction and based on mala fide intent.

The rights defender was taken into custody on Nov 13, 2019, and was held incommunicado for many months with intelligence agencies expressing ignorance about his detention.

Later, the defence ministry disclosed that he was in the custody of military authorities under Section 2(1)(d) of the Pakistan Army Act, 1952, read with Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act, 1923.

Court asks ministry to respond to plea against Idress Khattak trial

Initially, the petitioner had filed a habeas corpus petition against the alleged illegal detention of Idress Khattak. The petition is still pending with the high court.

The petitioner recently filed the current petition on behalf of Idress Khattak against his trial by the Field General Court Martial (FGCM).

Abdul Lateef Afridi and Tariq Afghan, lawyers for the petitioner, contended that being a civilian, Idress Khattak couldn’t be tried by the FGCM under the Army Act and therefore, his detention should be struck down for being illegal.

They said the detained rights defender was picked up along with his driver on the motorway near Swabi Interchange as he was on the way to home.

The lawyers added that the driver was freed three days later but Idress Khattak remained missing until the military authorities informed the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances at Islamabad about his detention on June 18.

They said in the earlier petition, the court had directed the government on Jul 24 to produce the entire records of the detainee. The counsel said on Sept 21, the defence ministry had handed over an envelope to the high court, which carried only a computer printout neither signed by anyone nor having any official stamp.

They said the printout declared that the detainee was being tried by the FGCM on seven charges.

The counsel said Idress Khattak had not associated himself with any employee of the armed forces so his trial under the Army Act was unjustified.

They contended that for the trial of the detainee under the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, 1923, neither the provincial government nor the federal government had filed any complaint with any court or special tribunal, so his trial couldn’t move on.

The lawyers said during a recent hearing into a case regarding the trial of retired Colonel Inamur Rahim by a court martial, the Supreme Court had wondered how the trial of a civilian could be held under the Army Act.

Idress Khattak, a former provincial general secretary of the National Party, had studied in the erstwhile Soviet Union, held a PhD degree in anthropology from a Soviet university and is the general secretary of the Alumni Association of Russian Graduates in Pakistan.

A few weeks ago, a video went viral on social media showing Idress Khattak’s daughter request the government to free her father. The video caused a public outcry against the rights defender’s disappearance.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2020

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