THE decision of the military’s top brass to try those arsonists who attacked various sensitive installations and monuments in the country in the aftermath of the May 9 arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan under the Pakistan Army Act (PAA) has raised many eyebrows.
Not only are the legal experts questioning the powers of the military to try civilians under PAA 1952 for arson, dissenting voices have also started coming from within the ruling coalition.
Speaking on a point of order in the National Assembly on Tuesday, independent MNA from North Waziristan, sitting on the treasury benches, Mohsin Dawar not only opposed the idea of holding trial of civilians under the PAA and Official Secrets Act, but also termed it a “dangerous move”.
He was of the view that such a step could become a precedent which might haunt all the political parties in the times to come.
“Though, for the time being, it will be beneficial for some, it will not be possible for them to undo it in future,” he warned while referring to the announcement made by the military authorities after the special Corps Commanders Conference through which the generals not only “condemned the politically motivated and instigated incidents against military installations and public/private properties in the strongest possible sense,” but also vowed to bring the arsonists to justice through trial under relevant laws of the country, including PAA and Official Secrets Act 1923.
Dissenting voices emerge from within ruling coalition
The National Party (NP), one of the components of the ruling alliance, has also opposed the trial of civilians through military courts, besides criticising fresh deployment of army in Balochistan and ex-Fata districts.
“There is a criminal justice system in place to deal with arsonists. Therefore, invoking Army Act against civilians is not required,” said NP Senator Tahir Bizenjo while talking to Dawn.
The senator was of the view that those invoking this law against certain political party would ultimately use this to silence the dissenting voices among other politicians and journalists.
PTI leader and former National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser opined that trying civilians under the PAA seemed to be “difficult”.
Similarly, at least two former Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs) of military’s legal wing spoke to Dawn on the applicability of the PAA on civilians and both of them said PAA did not empower the military to try suspects for attacking military and civilian installations.
Retired Brigadier Wasaf Khan Niazi said the army could try a civilian under the PAA and Official Secrets Act only on charges of espionage. He quoted Section 2 of the PAA which defines “persons” who could be tried and the offence committed by them.
The said section states “persons not otherwise subject to this Act who are accused of seducing or attempting to seduce any person subject to this Act from his duty or allegiance to government, or having committed, in relation to any work of defence, arsenal, naval, military or air force establishment or station, ship or aircraft or otherwise in relation to the naval, military or air force affairs of Pakistan” can be tried under the Official Secrets Act, 1923.
It was after the bloody terrorist attack on Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 by the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that parliament through an amendment to the constitution allowed the civilians’ trial in the military courts to expedite the judicial process.
The amendment had enabled the court martial of those terrorists, misusing the name of religion or a sect, raise arms or wage war against Pakistan, or attack the armed forces, or law enforcement agencies, or attack any civil or military installations in Pakistan etc. However, due to a sunset clause the law was lapsed in 2019 after remaining enforced for four years.
Talking to Dawn on condition of anonymity, a former judge of the Supreme Court said though there were several judgements of civilians’ trial in the military courts, the government would have to amend the PAA to enable trial of arsonists.
Though the army had distanced itself from arrest of the PTI chairman, the unruly crowd in different cities stormed key buildings, especially those belong to army.
The military as well as the other segments of society were shocked to see ransacking of Crops Commander House in Lahore, attack on the General Headquarters (GHQ), setting ablaze the historic building of Radio Pakistan in Peshawar and attacks on other public and private buildings.
The military has reportedly planned to invoke PAA against the suspects who allegedly stormed the office of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Faisalabad against certain PTI leaders.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2023
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