• CJP says won’t allow military to take any ‘unconstitutional steps’
• Court to wait for Senate verdict on changes to Official Secrets Act before taking any action

ISLAMABAD: Acknow­ledging the seriousness of what transpired on May 9 — when PTI supporters attacked public property and army installations — Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial said on Thursday the court did not want to see Pakistan Army pointing their guns at civilians, since they were meant to defend the country and its people.

“The court would want to res­train the Pakistan Army from taking any unconstitutional step,” Justice Bandial said. He was heading a six-judge Supreme Court bench hearing petitions against the trial of civilians in military courts.

Later, the Supreme Court postponed further proceedings for an indefinite period, despite requests by the petitioners to conclude and decide the matter during the current week.

The observations from the CJP came when Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Usman Awan emphasised that soldiers were equipped with sophisticated weapons and were trained to shoot, but they had exercised restraint on that day.

This was the first time in the country’s history that 15 army installations were attacked, Mr Awan said, insisting that soldiers couldn’t wait to file a police complaint when army property came under attack.

Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the petitioners in the case, wondered why then the army did not shoot the attackers.

At this, the AGP explained that the army did not want to create a precedent for the future. Mr Awan also recalled that Aitzaz Ahsan and his (the AGP’s) father were part of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the 1980s and had even served jail time, but they never resorted to attacking army installations.

Mr Awan informed the court that the government needed time to prepare some legislative instrument to grant the right to appeal against the convictions by the military court to the 102 suspects in custody of the armed forces, which would provide the superior courts oversight over the decisions of the trial courts.

The CJP observed that the country and the judiciary were going through a challenging time, and it should be acknowledged that what happened on May 9 was of serious nature. But, he said, the court did not want to see army officials raising their guns against civilians, since they were meant to defend the country and its people.

“We need to apply our minds,” Justice Bandial said, and noted that the directions of the court were being implemented and appreciated that the kind of defiance the court had witnessed earlier in other cases was not being repeated by the government in the present case. “We want to respect and should express our gratitude for their cooperation,” he said.

About the request of Aitzaz Ahsan and Sardar Abdul Latif Khosa to conclude the proceedings within this week, Justice Bandial emphasised that some judges were working despite vacations, but many of them wanted to avail holidays due to health concerns or other personal reasons.

At this, the attorney general once again assured the court that no trial of the 102 suspects would begin before informing the apex court.

‘Perpetual martial law’

At the outset of Thursday’s proceedings, Aitzaz Ahsan drew the attention of the court towards a bill regarding unbridled powers to the intelligence agencies and urged the CJP to take suo motu notice.

Through the bill, the government intended to grant blanket powers to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) to raid and detain any citizen with or without warrants for breach of secrecy.

The bill — which seeks to amend the Official Secrets Act, 1923 — was passed by the National Assembly, but the Senate referred it to a standing committee.

Mr Ahsan equated the passage of the bill with an attempt to clamp “perpetual martial law” in the country, regretting that unqualified authority was being granted to intelligence agencies who which could now barge into any home.

He urged the court that this matter should be heard by the present six-judge bench, since it was virtually a full court.

At this, the chief justice wondered if it was a law or a bill. When told that it was a bill, he said it should first be seen what the other house of the parliament could do.“The fundamental rights cannot be left to the sweet will of the legislature,” Justice Munib Akhtar observed, adding that ensuring rights to the people was a consistent concept of the Constitution.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2023

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