WITH a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously ruling that all civilians accused of involvement in “events arising from and out of” May 9 and 10 be tried by criminal courts instead of under the Army Act, the state would be better off honouring the verdict instead of finding new ways to work around it.
The superior judiciary has taken a rather dim view of the security forces’ decision to court-martial civilians, whose crimes involved rioting and vandalisation of state property — including military infrastructure.
This measure had seemed quite excessive even when it was first announced, but has now been deemed unlawful as well.
Not only that, the majority of the bench has held that the provisions of the Army Act which allowed for it to be applied to civilians, in certain cases, are ultra vires the Constitution, and, therefore, without any legal effect. Thus, a solid legal line has been drawn between the civilian and military domains.
Attorney General Mansoor Usman Awan has said that the federal government will appeal the decision under the recently validated Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act, 2023. Before proceeding, the government should be asked: to what end?
Separately, some experts believe that the cases being tried under military courts will now end up in special courts instead of ordinary courts because the accused may be charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. This will ensure that proceedings remain opaque and the accused are tried under charges much more serious than their alleged crimes appear to be.
Again: why, and to what end? There is no question that some overzealous individuals took political agitation against the arrest of their leader much too far, crossing lines that should never have been crossed.
But does this mean they ought to be treated on a par with actual traitors, enemy combatants, and foreign spies? Do the convictions being sought really fit their crimes?
There are laws aplenty to deal with those involved in rioting and vandalism; there is no need for an intervention by elements outside the civilian domain. If any wrong has been committed against any state institution, the matter should be taken to the country’s judiciary for redress.
The massive imbalance of power between ordinary citizens and the establishment would have worsened if the latter was allowed to sit in judgement over the former. It is encouraging to see the Supreme Court take a firm stance on the matter.
One hopes that the cases of those who have been languishing behind bars for the last many months will be resolved by the civil courts soon.
Meanwhile, bigger issues need our attention, the most important one being what is to be done regarding those who have made a mockery of the Constitution over the past few months.
Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2023