Why military trials?

Published July 3, 2023
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

PAKISTAN’S long-running political soap opera continues, adding layers of intrigue with each passing day. Every day, Pakistanis long disenchanted by the shenanigans of the ruling elite, watch from the edge of their seats as the fate of their country hangs in the balance between the Supreme Court and the military.

Add to that the distrust that the big three political parties harbour against one another, and you have a riveting political drama, fit for viewing on the OTT platform of your choice. Only this time, nothing is fictional, and it is the common man who stands to lose the most.

The Supreme Court, after repeated attempts by various legal intellectuals, finally decided to take up the challenge against the trial of civilians by military courts. Whatever the fate of the petitions before it may be, one thing is clear, the crisis in Pakistan is far from over and every player in the game knows that.

The only thing left to determine now, is what, if anything, could have compelled the government of the day to fall back on an archaic legal paradigm reserved generally for ‘hardcore terrorists’ and ‘enemies of the state’.

For starters, the military courts are seen as a mode of ‘speedy justice’. There is little to no argument against that. If history is anything to go by, trials conducted by military courts are conducted in record time.

To draw parallels, the time it takes for a military court to determine the fate of an accused is similar to the time it takes for an ordinary court to serve notices and merely formalise the pre-trial stages of the case at hand.

This in no way reflects on the competence of the judges in these ordinary courts but rather illustrates the neglect with which access to justice has been handled by successive governments, and dare I add, by the top echelons of our judicial elite.

Surprising as it may be to some, Pakistan’s judicial system is much more than just the NAB courts, the high courts and the Supreme Court. The unfancied parts of our judicial system — ie, the courts at the magistrate and district levels, are the primary gateways to justice for 99 per cent of Pakistan’s population. They continue to remain overutilised and understaffed.

Is the agenda to take political rivals to task or punish violent elements?

Perhaps the government was of the view that if it left the fate of all those who allegedly torched state property, albeit in a gesture of adulation towards their beloved leader, to the regular courts, then its short-term ambitions of having the perpetrators brought to task would never be fulfilled. This is where the problem lies.

Instead of setting about to reform the state of the civilian judiciary in Pakistan such that it would allow the trial of these perpetrators in a speedy and effective way all the while guaranteeing the fundamental human right of fair trial, the government has decided to seek aid from the military, this time in the form of military courts.

The problem with the military courts is that irrespective of the facts, whatever they may be, the general perception is that a military court represents a trial by the military, a trial which is at least in theory deemed a trial conducted in a slipshod manner with guaranteed conviction.

If so, why did the government feel the need to make use of military courts to try civilians? The answer is not so simple and is twofold: either the government feels that the perpetrators are guilty of committing the crime that has been alleged against them and should be firmly punished, or it is using the military courts to further its own petty political agenda.

If the government is, indeed, of the view that the perpetrators of the violence that took place on May 9 deserve to be brought to swift justice, then what better way to do so than have them tried and convicted in the ordinary course of events through regular courts which are perceived to be fair and impartial? This would only further the government’s narrative against the former prime minister.

On the contrary, if the government merely wishes to weaponise the military courts to take their political opponents to task, then it would do well to remember the events surrounding former prime minister Imran Khan’s ouster as a living testament of how power is never certain.

One believes that it is time for the government to reflect on the implications of its actions on this front. It should be quite clear to those at the helm of affairs that if they bring a class of civilians within the ambit of the military courts on one pretext, it may not be long before some other pretext is used to bring another class within the same ambit.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @sheheryarzaidi

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2023

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