Military courts trying civilians – an anathema to civilized sensibilities – are being revived for three years with the government seeking a change in the lapsed constitutional amendment unacceptable to the two main opposition parties, the PPP and PTI.
At Thursday’s parliamentary leaders’ meeting, convened by the National Assembly Speaker, both parties raised serious objections to what the Law Minister described as ‘fine-tuning’ of the proposed constitutional amendment bill bringing back military courts. The fine-tuning turned out to be an attempt to change the part of the previous law that permitted military courts to try persons “belonging to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of religion or sect.” The draft bill excluded the words “using the name of religions or sect” which not only defeats the very purpose of the proposed law but opens the door to misuse against political elements.
The previous constitutional amendment was made in the wake of December 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Even then the idea of military courts trying civilians had caused much apprehension and controversy but was accepted as an extraordinary measure under extraordinary circumstances, with a two-year sunset clause that ended on January 7.
The expectation was that during this time, as required by the National Action Plan, the government would revamp and reform the criminal justice system, providing protection to witnesses and judges in terrorism cases. Unfortunately, two years on, zero progress has been made on this account.
Which is bad enough. Even worse, the government has wanted to take out the core sentence from the old law to placate a political ally, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, rather than to deal with the issue at hand. It may be recalled that right from the start, the JUI-F leader had opposed the focus on those “using the name of religion or sect” arguing – in an indirect reference to Baloch insurgents and, perhaps, the MQM – that some others were involved in terrorism too.
The undeniable fact is that those killing innocent people all over the country are either sectarian or TTP terrorists who use religion for the furtherance of their respective agendas. It is no coincidence that the banned organisations are either sectarian or TTP groups. As for political dissenters, needless to say, they can and should be dealt with politically.
The PPP has now decided not to oppose the draft bill, and the PTI is likely to follow suit. This is believed to be the result of an assurance that their objection would be duly addressed. The proposed law must apply only to those accused of using religion or sectarianism to perpetrate terror. Still, it would remain a draconian measure and source of concern about the rights of the people. It is about time the government fulfilled its part of the responsibility towards strengthening the criminal justice system.
The opposition parties must play their role in Parliament to have the government undertake necessary reforms so the legal rights of all are respected under due process.