If Pakistan's army couldn't curb terrorism with a military dictator in power for a decade, what magic solution do military courts offer? Activists question the apex court's decision to endorse army tribunals.
Some people think it is paradoxical that the Pakistani Supreme Court has decided to endorse military courts which now run parallel to it. The recent decision by the apex court can be interpreted in several ways and on many levels, but experts say its main message is that the custodians of the country's civil legal system have admitted that they can't dispense justice in cases related to Islamic terrorism. They have simply bowed to the pressure and handed over the reins to the army.
The matter is not that simple. On a number of instances, the civilian courts' judges were openly threatened by Islamic militant groups such as the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. A number of lawyers have been killed for prosecuting the extremists. Many judges have fled the country after receiving death threats. In Pakistan, it is not easy to go against Islamists. In the past, liberal politicians were killed for speaking against controversial blasphemy laws and in favor of secular legislation. The perpetrators of these crimes have still not been brought to justice.
But does that mean that the matter would simply be handed over to the military, which many observers believe is a problem and not a solution? After all, the powerful military of the South Asian nation has been receiving billions of dollars from Western nations for more than a decade to eradicate terrorism from Pakistani soil. This includes seven years of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf's nine-year iron fist rule from 1999 to 2008. If the military could not rein in the Islamists back then, why do the supporters of the military courts think they can solve the issue now?
Military courts enjoy popular support in Pakistan. A consensus to establish anti-terrorism courts was reached after the horrific Taliban attack on a Peshawar school in December last year. More than 130 children were massacred in the assault. There had been violent attacks in the Islamic country in the past, but none was as appalling and as heinous as the attack on the Army Public School.
Never before in Pakistan had children been exclusively targeted. It was also the highest death toll in a single attack in the history of the South Asian nation. Thus, the inefficiency and incompetence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's civilian administration got further exposed in the wake of the Peshawar attacks. So earlier this year, the parliament unanimously approved a bill to create the military courts.
Violation of basic rights
On Wednesday, August 5, PM Sharif hailed the Supreme Court for not striking down the parliamentary bill and said the decision would strengthen Pakistan's efforts to curb terrorism. "The court's verdict is an admission that extra-ordinary circumstances demand extra-ordinary measures. The fast-track courts will now eliminate terrorists rapidly," said Sharif.
Kamaran Murtaza, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told DW he was disappointed by the apex court judgment.
"Article 10 of the Pakistani constitution gives every citizen the right to an open trial, and this is not possible in the military courts. Forget about the fair trial, nobody even knows the names of the convicts the military courts have thus far sentenced," Murtaza said, adding that he would appeal against the Supreme Court's decision as it "violates fundamental constitutional rights of the people."
Back to square one?
The chairperson of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission (HRCP), Zohra Yusuf, blames the political leadership for not taking advantage of the consensus against Islamist militancy and surrendering their powers to the army. "It is unfortunate that the nationwide resolve against the Taliban and other extremist groups did not translate into political action. It remained a military affair," Yusuf told DW.
But Waris Husain, a Washington-based Pakistan expert, says there is a widely-held belief in Pakistan that where civilian actors falter due to incompetence or unwillingness, the military "hits hard" at accomplishing its stated goal.
Husain, however, warned that the courts could also be used as a tool against political dissidents or groups that had long angered the military.
In the aftermath of the December 16 school attack, Pakistan also lifted a seven-year-long moratorium on death penalties. More than 8,000 Pakistanis, including juveniles, are currently on death row, according to rights group Amnesty International (AI), which has sharply condemned the recent executions.
A day before the Supreme Court allowed military courts, Shafqat Hussain, a convicted killer, who supporters say was a minor at the time of the crime and tortured into confessing, was hanged in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Hussain's case sparked concern from rights groups and the United Nations.
"My worry is that they (the authorities) will hang or use the hanging as a means to harass political opponents such as the nationalists in the western Balochistan province, or other political parties that are disliked by the military," Islamabad-based civil society activist and researcher Salim Shah told DW.
Democratization of anti-terrorism strategy
Now that the Pakistani army is comfortably back in the driving seat, the glimmer of hope that the consolidation of parliamentary democracy would lead to an improvement of the overall rights situation has largely been dashed. The worst effects of the military's dominance over state affairs and politics in 2014 could be seen on the level of freedom of speech in the country.
"The challenges to and constraints on freedom of expression did not decline in 2014," underlined the HRCP's annual report for 2014.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) also criticized Pakistan's counter-terrorism measures in a recently published report entitled "Revisiting Counter-Terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls." One of the major concerns in the document is related to the Pakistani military's continued dominance over the civilian administration.
Did the army exploit the national outrage against the Taliban after the Peshawar killings to its own benefit?
The South Asian country's National Action Plan (NAP), which was introduced after the Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar, has given the army an upper hand in the security affairs, which in a democratic set up should have been the domain of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government, the report said.
"The militarization of counter-terrorism policy puts at risk Pakistan's evolution toward greater civilian rule, which is itself a necessary but not sufficient condition to stabilize the democratic transition," underlines the report released on July 22. "The NAP looks far more like a hastily-conceived wish-list devised for public consumption during a moment of crisis than a coherent strategy," it added.
The ICG paper advises PM Sharif to take matters into his own hands and democratize the anti-terrorism strategy "in order to replace an overly militarized response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counter-terrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police."