Activists question Pakistan's planned military courts

Pakistan military Image copyright EPA
Image caption Members of the Pakistani military stand guard outside the Army Public School in Peshawar

Pakistan's plan to set up military courts to try terror suspects is prompting concerns about civil liberties in the aftermath of the Peshawar school massacre.

Leading human rights campaigners and intellectuals have questioned the safety of such a process, saying it represents a failure of civilian government and is fraught with risks.

The move is the latest in a range of measures announced following the 16 December Taliban attack. Militants killed at least 152 people, most of them children, at the Army Public School - the nation watched the slaughter unfold live on its television screens.

A country that had grown accustomed to violence was shaken like never before during years of insurgent attacks. Pakistan has lost about 56,000 lives in terrorism-related incidents over the past decade, according to the South Asia terrorism portal.

Within hours of the massacre, the army was stepping up its offensives against the militants and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had lifted an eight-year moratorium on the death penalty.

A number of people convicted of terrorism have since been executed, despite appeals by human rights groups concerned at the safety of convictions.

'How secret?'

Pakistan's parliament is expected to approve the military courts for two years, as part of an unprecedented response by the authorities.

The military have long denied nurturing some militant groups on the country's soil, particularly in the loosely-controlled tribal areas in the north-west of the country.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pakistan's military have long denied nurturing militant groups

Political parties have consistently failed to agree in recent years on how to deal with the insurgents.

Democracy and human rights campaigners have been demanding stern action against extremism and militancy for years, but they have deep reservations about what they are calling a "knee jerk" reaction by the military.

At the top of the list of campaigners' concerns are the military courts which are to try terror suspects in the future.

"The military courts are being created because the army chief of staff is angry that an army school has been attacked," constitutional expert Abid Hassan Minto said.

"We understand his anger but then the question arises that why didn't we see that anger when more than 100 minority Shia Hazaras were killed in Quetta or when 127 Christian men, women and children were killed in a church in Peshawar last year?"

Image caption Activists and writers say the new measures are fraught with risk

He was among about 80 activists who gathered at the South Asian Free Media Association's office in Lahore at the weekend to voice their concerns at recent developments, including a 20-point National Action Plan against terrorism announced by the government at the behest of the military. Journalist and writer Ahmed Rashid said the issue was transparency.

"How secret are these courts going to be?" he asked.

"The evidence which will be presented by the prosecution, will that be available to everybody attending the court and to the lawyers on both sides?

"If the evidence is just going to come from the intelligence agencies, can anyone stand up and question it? We need more clarity on these issues."

'Not kangaroo courts'

The government has sought to assuage such concerns.

"Pakistani soldiers are also tried in these courts, they are not only for foreigners," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a recent press conference.

"There are proper systems and principles. God forbid, military courts are not kangaroo courts, where whoever appears is hanged or punished, so all misconceptions about these courts must be done away with."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Parliament's lower house in Islamabad has approved the military courts plan

Some mainstream political parties initially opposed the idea of military courts on the basis that these courts could be misused to pressurise political opponents and could lead to human rights violations, particularly in Baluchistan province where some nationalist parties are fighting for separation from Pakistan.

But last week army chief General Raheel Sharif categorically made it clear that opposition to military courts was simply not an option.

The very next day an all-parties conference was chaired by the prime minister, at which the top political leadership extended its support for constitutional amendments which provide legal cover to military courts for two years.

Prime Minister Sharif made it clear that there was no room for debate on these amendments in parliament, owing to its urgency, and that the government and political leadership had already examined it. The bill has been tabled and is expected to be passed within days.

Many analysts believe the military courts represent the failure of a civilian government unable to fulfil its democratic responsibilities and gradually ceding its mandate to the army.

"It's very unfortunate that there is only one organised institution in this country and that is the military. They can do their homework and come up with solutions, whether we like them or not," political commentator Najam Sethi said.

"Our civil leaders do not have the capacity, ability or willingness to present any alternative viewpoint, and that is the terrible part of this situation."

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