Chairman of the Senate Raza Rabbani has expressed his regret over the two-year extension granted to military courts in the country, and not without reason. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party was the only political party to have questioned the move for extension in the first place – all other parties fell in line immediately after the government floated this idea.
According to the Chairman, the Senate’s Committee of the Whole had put a cut-off date for the military courts in place, but the timeline is not being followed. The reason for this is simple – military courts were a stop-gap measure until the judiciary could take on the extra load of terrorist cases without delay and this is no longer the case. The period when the military courts were operational was to be spent in strengthening the judiciary, something the government neglected to do. Another argument to justify their existence was the threat to the judiciary; if open trials of known terrorists were held with judges in public, there were likely to be repercussions. This is why military trials were supposedly held in secret. We gave up transparency and accountability for sure shot convictions.
While we must support the military, and the military courts because they are now a legal reality, there is no precedent for military courts in a democratic system, not to mention that the state’s dependence on them is unhealthy. Only authoritarian states have had military courts or tribunals. This is an untested system being used on an ad hoc basis. Will the delicate balance of power in the country really stay unaffected?
Popular opinion is that the opposition to the military courts is unpatriotic, and that the constitution and legal niceties do not apply to terrorists. This is a misconception. If we believe in the idea of being “innocent until proven guilty”, a fast track military led process must also believe in the same and this is why some from the PPP have been arguing against the military courts. And as much as we would like to see those who murder our loved ones punished, asking for justice for those suspected of terrorism, is not unpatriotic. There is a difference between suspicion and conviction.
The dependency on military courts to dispense with “swift justice” does not inspire confidence in the civilian judiciary, and is a major blow to the institution. The division of duties in government gets disturbed as well. Not only are the armed forces looking over security concerns both within and outside the country, they are also involved in policing activities in Karachi, Punjab and Balochistan. With this added responsibility of trying militants and terrorists, the army is overlooking too may affairs that are well beyond its mandate. This extension has already been granted, but the state must have the ability to dispense with justice without using extra-constitutional measures – that is its failure.