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Law allowing Pakistani military courts expires

January 7, 2017

A Pakistani law allowing military courts to try civilians on terror charges has expired. It's unclear if the government will extend the law, after criticism of the courts' legality and of their failure to curb terrorism.

Jemen Pakistanisches Parlament lehnt Beteilung an Luftschlägen ab
Image: Reuters/F. Mahmood

The controversial tribunals have hanged 12 people and ordered the execution of 149 more since they came into force after the deadly Taliban attack on a Peshawar school in December 2014 that killed more than 150 people, mostly children.

The country's powerful military intensified its crackdown on extremists following the Peshawar massacre, as the civilian government introduced a National Action Plan (NAP) that included the creation of the military courts, which were allowed to try civilians on terror charges.

The South Asian country's parliament and Supreme Court approved the law as an "exceptional" short-term measure, but it was heavily criticized by Pakistan's civil society as "extra-constitutional."

Rights activists also say the courts failed to achieve the target they had set for themselves - the eradication of terror. In addition, they say, no efforts have been made to reform the civilian judicial system to speed up terror trials.

"The lapse of the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians is a step in the right direction, but unsurprisingly, there is no sign of the promised reforms to strengthen the ordinary criminal justice system to effectively handle terrorism-related cases," said Sam Zarifi, Asia Director of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).

Pakistan Taliban-Überfall auf Schule in Peshawar 16.12.2014
The Peshawar attack led to a crackdown on terrorImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sajjad

"The Pakistani government must not re-enact legislation to continue secret military trials of civilians, nor resort to more short-term, short-sighted security measures that are contrary to human rights protection," Zarifi added.

Analyst Imtiaz Gul told the AFP news agency it was unlikely that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government would extend the courts that have been an "embarrassment" for the country.

Citing military sources, the ICJ said the military courts had convicted 274 people since January 2015, of which 161 were sentenced to death, adding that many details about the convictions had not been made public by the military.

A solution or a problem?

Despite the criticism, the military courts enjoyed considerable public support in Pakistan, as the civilian courts have failed to deal with terrorism-related cases.

In 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, and many judges have fled the country after receiving death threats. In Pakistan, it is not easy to proceed 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 rights activists say that did not justify the military's involvement in civilian judicial matters. The Pakistani military already has more say in domestic and foreign policy matters than the civilian government.

Pakistan Proteste gegen Taliban 5. Januar 2015
A consensus to establish anti-terrorism courts was reached after the horrific Taliban attack on a Peshawar school in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

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 of the nine years of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf's iron-fisted rule from 1999 to 2008. Activists ask why the supporters of the military courts think they could solve the issue if the military could not rein in Islamists back then.

The chairperson of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission (HRCP), Zohra Yusuf, blamed political leaders 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 after the Peshawar attack.

In a 2015 report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) criticized Pakistan's counterterrorism measures.

The National Action Plan introduced after the Taliban attack in Peshawar had given the army a dominance in security affairs that in a democratic setup should have belonged to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government, the report said.

"The militarization of counterterrorism 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," the report released on July 22 underlines. "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 Prime Minister 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 counterterrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police."