Overreactions

Published May 23, 2023

AS the establishment vows to show no mercy to the PTI for the events of May 9, and the PDM helps the military in bringing Imran Khan and his party to heel, disturbing questions about trying civilians in military courts, as well as the continued crackdown on the party and its supporters, remain.

Where trying those who took part in the riots following Mr Khan’s arrest under the Army Act is concerned, there are mixed signals from the state. The prime minister has said only those who attacked military installations will be tried under the Army Act, while those who indulged in destroying civilian infrastructure will face civilian laws.

The defence minister, meanwhile, has ruled out the formation of new military courts. While his clarification is welcome, it remains to be seen under what mechanism civilians will be tried, as the constitutional cover for the trial of non-military personnel in military courts expired in 2019.

As for the continued clampdown on PTI and its supporters, Human Rights Watch has called for the state to end the “arbitrary arrests of political opposition activists and peaceful protesters.”

As this paper has argued earlier, using military courts to punish rioters is stepping into dangerous territory. While those who indulged in violence need to be punished, the punishment should be commensurate with the crime.

Many legal experts have observed that there are serious lacunae where ensuring due process in military courts is concerned, and the accused are unlikely to get a fair trial.

Moreover, when a civilian government is in power, and the laws of the land are adequate to punish the rioters, the need to reactivate military courts does not arise. Civilian laws should be supreme and all those accused of indulging in violence on May 9 and later, need to be tried in regular courts.

As for the wave of arrests and intimidation, there are disturbing reports of families of PTI supporters being harassed, while even journalists covering the party’s protests have been rounded up and questioned. Suffice it to say, all actions need to be within lawful bounds, and no witch-hunts can be allowed.

Regarding the civilian actors gleefully supporting the anti-PTI campaign, they should not forget that in future, if they ever dare to disagree with the establishment, they may also face similar treatment, or worse.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2023

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