In his farewell speech, outgoing Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa admitted that the people of Pakistan had become critical of the Army and rightly reasoned that “The main reason for this is the involvement of the army in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional.” He then went on to say that the Pakistan Army had “after great deliberation, decided that it would never interfere in any political matter”, and even gave an assurance that “we are strictly adamant on this and will remain so.”
Few [if any] took Gen Bajwa’s pledge seriously and this pervasive scepticism was well founded because barely six months later, his successor Gen Asim Munir sent out a clear message that Rawalpindi would continue to be the dominant decision-making player in Pakistan. This indirect revelation came after the May 15 special corps commanders’ conference [CCC] that was hurriedly convened in the wake of widespread incidents of mobs attacking military installations, desecrating war memorials and ransacking the official residence of a three-star General in Lahore on May 9.
The statement issued by Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] on conclusion of the CCC reads, “The Forum expressed firm resolve that those involved in these heinous crimes against the military installations and personal/ equipment will be brought to justice through trials under relevant laws of Pakistan including Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act . . .” [Emphasis added]. In short, the Army has [as always], without reference to the legislature and judiciary, decided on its own to try people accused of rioting and arson on May 9 in military courts!
The very next day after ISPR announced Rawalpindi’s unilateral decision to try the May 9 rioters and arsonists under Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act, the National Security Committee [NSC] hastily okayed the same despite legal experts voicing grave concerns regarding legitimacy of the same. Even as the clamour against trial of civilians by military courts gained momentum, the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif [expectedly] approved the NSC’s recommendation [which was what the Army had already decided].
This comes as no surprise as in Pakistan, it’s the military that both ‘proposes’ as well as ‘disposes’. This is amply evident from Deputy Regional Director for South Asia at Amnesty International [AI] Dinushika Dissanayake’s pointed statement that “It is alarming to note that the Pakistani Army has stated its intention to try civilians under military laws, possibly in military courts. Trying civilians in military courts is contrary to international law” [emphasis added].
AI has genuine reasons to worry. Its statement reads, “Amnesty International has documented a catalogue of human rights violations stemming from trying civilians in military courts in Pakistan, including flagrant disregard for due process, lack of transparency, coerced confessions, and executions after grossly unfair trials”. This sentiment is also shared by the International Commission of Jurists [ICJ], a Geneva based international human rights non-governmental organisation founded in 1952, which has a standing group of 60 eminent jurists and rights activists.
In its 2016 Briefing Paper appropriately titled ‘Military Injustice in Pakistan’ ICJ notes that “In the 18 months since military courts were empowered to try terrorism-related offences, they have convicted at least 81 people, possibly including children, in opaque, secret proceedings“ [emphasis added]. The paper goes on to reveal that “At least 12 people have been hanged after trials that are grossly unfair: In all these cases, the government and military authorities have failed to make public information about the time and place of their trials; the specific charges and evidence against the convicts; as well as the judgments of military courts including the essential findings, legal reasoning, and evidence on which the convictions were based” [emphasis added].
ICJ has made several scathing observations on Pakistan’s military courts and for lack of space, only few are mentioned below:
· “Military courts in Pakistan are not independent or impartial. Judges of military courts are military officers who are a part of the executive branch of the State and do not enjoy independence from the military hierarchy”.
· The presiding officer and members of military courts “are not required to have judicial or legal training, or even a law degree, and do not enjoy any security of tenure, which are prerequisites of judicial competence and independence”.
· “Critical decisions with respect to the constitution of courts martial, place of hearing, and final sentences are currently left in the hands of military officers [not judges], which further violates the fundamental requirements of independence of the judiciary”.
· Under a 2015 law, “the [Pakistan] Army Act, allows judges of military courts to hold in camera trials, and keep the identities of individuals associated with the cases secret”.
· “The secrecy that surrounds [Pakistani] military courts’ proceedings raises questions about these “confessions” and “admissions” made by the convicts, especially in light of the widespread torture and ill-treatment in detention in Pakistan, particularly those in custody of the military”.
Apologists may contend that criticism of Pakistan’s military courts by a host of international rights organisations is motivated, but this argument isn’t supported by the track record of these courts. In 2018, Dawn reported that Peshawar High Court [PHC] had set aside death sentences and life imprisonment terms awarded to 74 civilians by Pakistan military courts on the ground that “charges against the accused had not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt,” and this wasn’t the only such incident.
In June 2020, The Siasat Daily reported that PHC overturned the sentences of at least 200 people, convicted by military courts and ordered their release with immediate effect as the accused were sentenced on their confessional statements and were not given a fair trial. So, the chances that military courts will be able to fairly dispense justice in the May 9 incident trails are highly circumspect. That’s why even the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has condemned this decision and opined that “While those responsible for arson and damaging public and private property during the recent protests should be held to account, they remain entitled to due process”.
With the PTI chief boldly taking on Rawalpindi by exposing the dirty games being played by Gen Munir and his ilk, the people of Pakistan have become far more discerning now. So, while no one can stop it from trying the May 9 rioters under the Pakistan Army Act, the Army must not forget that doing so would be at its own peril because people will no longer accept Rawalpindi playing the role of judge, jury and executioner, all rolled in one!