In limbo

Published March 31, 2024

FOLLOWING the Dec 13, 2023, order from the Supreme Court — wherein it had suspended the operation of an earlier judgement declaring military trials for civilians ‘illegal’ and allowed hearings against May 9 suspects to be completed — more than 100 citizens were consigned to a legal purgatory of sorts.

They were neither to be convicted nor acquitted till the country’s top judges made up their minds regarding whether or not military trials for civilians are acceptable under the law. The matter was then shelved for months.

This Monday, a six-member bench of the SC realised, perhaps a tad belatedly, that the decision had also delayed the release of those who were to be handed shorter jail terms by the military courts, as well as those against whom no case was proven.

As a ‘remedy’, the SC this Thursday allowed the military courts to pronounce reserved verdicts in these specific cases, which would allow nominated suspects to be released before Eid. It was reported that 15 to 20 people would benefit from the order — subject, of course, to the army chief’s approval.

However, the approximately 80 civilians still left in military custody would have to wait till the appeals against the SC’s military court verdict are decided because it is that decision which will ultimately determine whether or not any of these trials was legally valid.

It bears recalling that the SC had in October last year ruled that military courts had no business prosecuting civilians for rioting and that all May 9 suspects should be tried in criminal courts instead. If the six-member apex court bench hearing the appeals against this judgement upholds it, it could mean that all suspects, including those who are about to be released, may have to undergo a retrial in a criminal court.

The judges who suspended the Supreme Court’s October ruling ought to have factored this into account. They should have realised that they were prolonging the suspects’ legal battle and, thereafter, taken the appeals up with more urgency. Now, they have allowed the military courts to issue verdicts without determining whether or not the trials are even lawful.

This matter needs to be put to rest. The time the suspects have already spent in custody will not be returned to them. The principle of presumption of innocence exists so that no one faces punishment for a crime till it has been proven in a competent court of law.

It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court created this situation, which allowed the state to continue depriving civilians of their constitutional liberties without any finding of guilt against them. As some observers have pointed out, in our legal system, the process itself seems to be the punishment. This should not be allowed to continue.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2024

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