The military courts in Pakistan were established after the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar in late 2014 at the hands of terrorists. The reason behind the establishment of these courts was the desire for a quick and speedy trial to punish the people involved in terrorist activities.
A military operation with the name of Zarb-e-Azb was launched to dislodge the terrorist organizations and their sanctuaries in Pakistan and it was deemed necessary that with the loopholes in the civil judiciary system, military courts should be established so the terrorists could be brought to justice.
It has been five years since then, and in 2019 the fate of the military courts lies in the hands of parliament, as it is parliament that has the authority to pass a bill to extend the military courts.
Prime Minister Imran Khan recently formed a committee of two members, namely Defense Minister Pervez Khattak and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, to look into the matter of further extension of the military courts. The duty of the two-member committee was to persuade the opposition to vote in favor of the military courts’ extension, as the federal government does not enjoy a majority that allows it to pass legislation on its own.
The Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have agreed to vote in favor of the extension of the military courts. The issue of military courts operating in the presence of a civil criminal justice system has sparked debate over the last few years as many human-rights activists and organizations do not see any need of the further extension of the military courts.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a recent press release opposed the idea of an extension of the military courts. The HRCP stated that “the institution of military courts is an anomaly in any democratic order that claims to uphold the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens. It is the state’s duty to uphold the rule of law in a manner that ensures that every citizen is entitled to due process and a fair trial.”
The military courts were set up at a time when Pakistan was facing a surge of terrorist attacks by banned outfits and the civil judiciary was not able to prosecute the terrorists because of the loopholes in the criminal justice system and direct threats against the judges by such outfits as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
However, it was pledged at that time that the state would try to improve the judicial system in the near future so the due process of justice could take its course. But subsequently, no concrete steps were taken to address the flaws in the criminal justice system and to improve the overall performance of the judiciary.
In fact, the Supreme Court of Pakistan spent most of its time dealing with political cases and fixing administrative problems, which actually fell under the domain of the elected government. The military courts therefore still have been considered the only viable solution to deal with terrorists for the majority of Pakistanis including the political parties.
However, human-rights activists like Bushra Gohar and Afrasiab Khattak and renowned journalists like Ayesha Siddiqa view the military courts as just more involvement of the army in civilian matters, as it always has a say in domestic and foreign affairs.
As far as the performance of the military courts is concerned, according to the director general of inter-services public relations, Major-General Asif Ghafoor, since the establishment of the courts, the federal government has referred 717 cases to them. A total of 546 of these 717 cases were finalized by the military courts. Out of these 546 finalized cases, 310 terrorists were handed the death penalty, while 234 received rigorous prison terms of varying durations ranging from five years to life. Two accused were acquitted.
Keeping in view the ground realities of the weak justice and prosecution system, one can argue that the military courts are essential to deal with terrorists with an iron hand, but at the same time it also raises the question of why the civilian institutions are not competent enough, and if the military has to run domestic affairs, foreign affairs, and the courts, then what is the justification for democracy or an elected government?
Instead of rectifying the criminal justice system and improving the performance of the judiciary, dependence on the courts that are run by the military is not going to solve Pakistan’s problems. The military courts can never be considered a replacement for the weak criminal justice system and a poor judicial system. There is always doubt on the impartiality of military courts and with the military being involved in politics, many fear it can misuse its power through these courts.
Recently a two-member bench of Peshawar High Court set aside military-court convictions and released 74 people, of whom 50 were facing death sentences while the rest were serving jail terms. So it raises a serious concern on the extension of military courts, and seeing the main political parties like the PPP, PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) all ready to vote in favor of the extension of the military courts raises a question of whether they are really interested in a truly democratic system or it is all about grabbing power for them, even bending on their core principles.
The PML-N, which fought last year’s general elections on the narrative of “respect my vote” and claims that it is an anti-establishment party, seems to have joined hands with the PTI and PPP to pass legislation that will allow the extension of military courts. It seems when it comes to real issues pertaining to the sovereignty of democracy and human rights, all the political parties join hands with the powerful establishment to gain temporary relief and benefits.
This is the reason that democracy is weak in Pakistan and that fundamental rights are usurped in the name of national security and patriotism. The military and political elites both seem uninterested in addressing the root cause of the problem of terrorism, which actually stems from extremism, and extremism is fed to society through the self-created narratives of religious and national security.
Since everyone is busy playing their own game and seeking power over the resources of the country, the fundamental issue of addressing extremism and correcting the criminal justice system is being ignored.
Unless the ruling elite addresses these issues, the military courts and other short-term measures will not eradicate extremism from Pakistani society. On the other hand, the PML-N and PPP now cannot complain that democracy is weak in the country, as when the testing times come, instead of taking a stand on principle, they use approval of legislation for the extension of military courts as a bargaining chip to seek benefits and relief from the establishment.
Perhaps no one including the political and military elite seems serious in addressing the menace of extremism that has spoiled generation after generation in the name of religion, jihad, and patriotism. The military courts are surely not the answer to eradicating extremism from the country.