General Raheel Sharif’s statement given at the installation ceremony of Signal’s Corps at Kohat stipulating that accountability should be done across the board and its subsequent practical manifestation in the form of six sacked senior army officers has been roundly applauded by the entire nation. The public perception is that in addition to establishing an unprecedented moral primacy of the institution, the Army has also forced the Government to act on the Panama Leaks affair seriously. The PM, Mr Nawaz Sharif, has succumbed, albeit reluctantly, to the demand of opposition parties to constitute a judicial commission via the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Army has its own effective system of accountability , which is a routine process and is not publicised to maintain its decorum, General Sharif’s promulgation appears to be a deliberate action aimed at pressurising the government to constitute the judicial commission through self-example.

The short statement of ISPR, which is devoid of the details of the cases, coupled with the fact that the general public, media and even most of our lawyers (as manifested on the media during talk shows) lack material knowledge of military law and its administrative rules/regulations, has created a lot of confusion about the intensity of the punishment awarded to the officers as against the nature of their crimes.

Discipline in Pakistan Army is governed by the Manual of Pakistan Army (MPML), commonly known has ‘green book’ amongst the officers. This is a special law which has been adjudicated through legislation i.e. passed by both; lower and upper houses (Parliament and Senate). The connotation of justice in Military is to “maintain discipline in the Army”. The powers conferred on the Competent Authorities (CA) to maintain discipline in the Army have to be used judicially and justly. The manual has sections which deal with military offences, however, it also provides for trials related to other offences including heinous crimes, which come under the general or statutory law of the country and are not military offences, like theft, murder, rape etc. under ‘civil offences’. It’s at the discretion of the CA whether to try a civil offence in a military court or civil courts. After commission of an offence, the accused is tried by a court martial which includes District Court Martial (DCM), Field General Court Martial (FGCM) (on active service) and General Court Martial (GCM). The level of trial is decided by the CA keeping in view the magnitude of offence committed. In addition, there is also a provision for a summary court martial to address minor offences for the speedy disposal of disciplinary cases. A person subjected to the military law up to the rank of Major can be tried summarily. Officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel up to general cannot be tried summarily, and would therefore warrant a court martial.

In addition to the MPML, two more books, Army Rules (Instructions) and Army Rules (Regulations), which are commonly known as AR(I) and AR(R) are also used for the management of administrative matters. In case an offence cannot be tried by Court Martial due to lack of evidence or where a lenient view has to be taken by the CA keeping in view the good services of the accused person in the past or if no provision for the offence committed exists, administrative action is taken against the accused person including forced retirement (with or without benefits), if the stay of the guilty person is considered detrimental to the spirit of discipline in the Army.

In the military, trial by court martial is conducted in an extremely judicially correct and just manner. The accused is given the full opportunity to put forward his point of view in a series of forums progressively. First of all, a court of inquiry is conducted and, if found guilty, a decision is taken by the CA to record a summary of evidence in which, again, the accused gets the full opportunity to put across his point of view. Finally, the accused is tried in the court martial, where the accused can even hire a civilian defence counsel. A provision for appeal also exists even if the accused is found guilty and convicted. The aim is to bring truth to the fore and to provide speedy justice in the Army.

As per the ISPR release, the officers have been retired with partial benefits. This clearly indicates that the punitive action has been taken on administrative grounds as against trial by court martial, in which case the intensity of punishment would have been much higher. The rhetoric in the media about trial by court marital is totally incorrect, probably due to lack of knowledge, as mentioned earlier. It appears that either the offences committed by these officers could not be tried by a court martial due to lack of evidence, or the CA, in view of good services rendered by them in the past, has chosen to be lenient. Needless to say, it is difficult to comment on the magnitude of punishment awarded to the officers without having knowledge about the details of the offences which were committed by them.

Within the army, the decisions of CA are accepted wholeheartedly, and are neither looked at with suspicion, nor are they contested. This emanates from the trust that has been reposed with commanders at different levels. Correspondingly, this trust is never betrayed, and whatever step is taken by them is taken in good spirit and is considered to be in the best interest of the institution. This attitude originates from excellent leadership provided by the commanders, demonstrated by them through hard work, personal traits and strength of character. In case of the general public however, things are entirely different. In the present times, the general populace is very well informed due to the free media. The masses keenly follow events and consider it their right to know about the facts at hand. In case complete information is not provided to them, the “adventurists” in the media try to fill in the gap with their own speculative presumptions or malafide conjectures. These assumed inferences often lead to wrong perceptions in the minds of the common man. In this case, unless details are disclosed to the nation, it might be counterproductive for the army as an institution.

The adverse effects of the absence of details are already being manifested in the social media, in the shape of people irrationally condemning the retired officers like villains and pasting their uniformed photographs in their posts. This creates a bad impression of Pakistan Army as an institution. The rationale that led to the magnitude of punishment awarded by the CA, if publicised with logic and transparency, would be respected by at least the educated segment of society, instead of creating uninformed misperceptions which may have negative effects for the institution of the Army in the long run.

It is therefore imperative on ISPR to clarify the thoughts of the populace by enumerating the facts of these cases to include the details of offences committed by the officers, the method of punishment and the actions taken thereon. This, besides rescuing the nation from the ‘accountability syndrome’, would also remove the wrong perceptions of the people and will further increase the respect of army in the eyes of general public.