In a significant development, the National Assembly of Pakistan on Tuesday passed the 28th Constitutional (Amendment) Bill to reinstate military courts to try civilians charged with terrorism offences.
The two-year term of the special military courts, which Pakistan had established in 2015 to expedite its war against terrorism, expired earlier this year. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said in January that it would seek to keep them in place.
However, Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N was not able to extend the tenure of the courts on its own as it does not have the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. This led to two months of consensus building between the major parties.
On Monday, The Constitution (28th Amendment)-bill and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) were tabled in the lower house of parliament.
Both the amendments were passed with two-thirds majority. Around 255 members voted for the amendments bill while four lawmakers opposed it.
According to the 21st constitutional amendment, under which the military courts were formed in January 2015 for a two-year tenure, only the cases of the hardcore terrorists involved in terror activities while using the name of religion or sect could be referred to the military courts for trial.
Now, besides those belonging to any terrorist group or organisation misusing the name of religion or a sect, those committing grave and violent act of terrorism against the state have also been added to be tried by the military courts. This addition will cover all terrorists.
Under the system, defendants are not allowed to hire their own lawyers. Instead, they would be assigned one by the military. Also, there is no access for the media, and the venue and timing of the trials are not disclosed until a verdict is announced by the military.
The amendment will now be presented to Senate, where it will need two-thirds approval in order to become law. If the bill is passed by the Senate, it will reinstate military courts for a period of two years starting January 7, 2017 — the date on which military courts had lapsed under the previous arrangement.
While human rights activists have warned that the creation of military courts will lead to abuses, the government and Pakistan’s military say the country’s civilian judicial infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with terror cases, partly as judges fear becoming victims of revenge attacks by militants.
To address concerns of abuses, the House also passed a resolution for the formation of a parliamentary committee to oversee the military courts. The Pakistan People’s Party had insisted on the formation of a monitoring committee to keep a parliamentary check over the courts.
The passage of the bill to revive military courts follows a rash of terror attacks for almost 10 continuous days last month, which claimed around 125 lives.
Following the string of attacks, Pakistan’s military announced a major new nationwide operation to deal with militancy in the country.
The new operation, called Radd-ul-Fasaad (Elimination of Discord), has been launched to “eliminate the menace of terrorism.”
However, only time will tell whether the new military operation, coupled with ‘legal arsenal’ provided by the military courts, would contain the menace of terrorism in the country.
The House also passed a resolution for the formation of a parliamentary committee to oversee the military courts
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