A Lahore anti-terrorism court directed the superintendent of the city’s Camp Jail on Thursday to hand over 16 suspects arrested in connection with vandalism at Lahore Corps Commander’s House — also known as Jinnah House — during May 9 protests to a military commanding officer.
While the protests were underway, social media was flooded with footage of rioting and vandalism at various spots, including the Jinnah House and General Headquarters, the army’s head of office in Rawalpindi.
The military has termed the events of May 9 a “dark chapter” and announced around a week after the incidents its intent to try the rioters under relevant laws, including two military laws — the Pakistan Army Act and Official Secrets Act.
The decision was endorsed by the National Security Committee — the country’s principal decision-making forum on foreign policy and national security — a day later amid opposition by rights organisations and activists.
The PTI has also approached the Supreme Court against the federal government’s decision to prosecute civilians under the Army Act while Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif clarified earlier this week that only those accused of vandalising civilian infrastructures would be tried under the anti-terrorism law while those accused of vandalising military property would be put on trial under military laws.
In the first significant development on this front, administrative judge Abher Gul Khan ruled that 16 people be handed over to the military for “proceedings in accordance with the law”.
The decision came after the commanding officer of 54 Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Battalion, Irfan Akhtar submitted an application to the court, seeking the custody of the suspects in accordance with Section 549 (delivery to military authorities of persons liable to be tried by court-martial) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Criminal Procedure (Military Offenders) Rules 1970 for “inquiry/ trial to the extent of charges under the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, 1923”.
The application, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, contained a list of 16 people and said: “According to the initial investigation, the following accused persons are prime facie found involved with the commission of offences under the provisions of Official Secrets Act, 1923 read with Section 2(1)(d) and 59(4) of the Pakistan Army Act 1952.”
It added that these people, “by committing the offences under the said laws, have become subject to the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 and are exclusively liable to be inquired, investigated and triable by the military authorities in court martial”.
Section 2(1)(d) of the Army Act elaborates on persons subject to the Act and 59(4) states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or in any other law for the time being in force a person who becomes subject to this Act by reason of his being accused of an offence mentioned in clause (d) of subsection (1) of section 2 shall be liable to be tried or otherwise dealt with under this Act for such offence as if the offence were an offence against this Act and were committed at a time when such person was subject to this Act ; and the provisions of this section shall have effect accordingly.”
The application further stated that the suspects were in a judicial lockup at Camp Jail in two cases registered on May 10 “by the orders of this honourable court”, which was requested to hand over their custody to the Commanding Officer Akhtar.
In its order, the court observed that the deputy prosecutor general had not raised any objections to the application and forwarded the request for appropriate orders.
“In view of the request made by Irfan Akhtar, commanding officer/military officer, duly forwarded by the prosecution as the case of above mentioned accused is exclusively triable by military court, therefore, while accepting the request of commanding officer u/s 549(3) of the CrPC, read with Rule 7(f) of the Criminal Procedure (Military Offenders) Rules, 1970, superintendent, Jail Canmp, Lahore is directed to hand over the custody of the above said accused to the commanding officer for further proceedings in accordance with the law,” the court ruled.
Amnesty International opposes decision
Amnesty International has opposed the decision, reiterating its position against trying civilians in military courts.
In a statement, the organisation highlighted that “the right to a fair trial is a constitutional right and an obligation under Pakistan’s international human rights commitments”.
It added that it had documented a catalogue of “human rights violations stemming from trying civilians in military courts in Pakistan, including flagrant disregard for due process, a lack of transparency and coerced confessions”.
The organisation called upon authorities to “immediately reverse” the handing over of civilians to the military for a trial and stressed that civilians should only be prosecuted in a civilian court using ordinary criminal laws commensurate with the offence.