Pakistan law allowing military courts expires

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A law allowing trial of suspected terrorists in military courts after the deadly Taliban attack on Army Public School in Peshawar expired on Saturday.

The military tribunals hanged 12 people and ordered the executions of 149 more.

The government has not said whether it plans to extend use of the courts.

The courts were established under the under the 21st Constitutional Amendment and Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2015, for two years, which became ineffective after January 7.

The assault on a school in northwestern Peshawar, in which gunmen killed more than 140 people — mostly children — traumatised a country already grimly accustomed to atrocities.

The army intensified an operation against militants in the tribal areas and the government launched a National Action Plan, including the creation of the courts, against extremism.

Lawmakers amended the constitution in January 2015, responding to an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters on a military-run school that killed 134 children, but inserted an expiry clause to keep the measure temporary.

The amendment was criticised for handing significant judicial control to the powerful military, which has ruled the country of 190 million people for about half of its existence.

Experts say Pakistan´s government was reluctant to push for a renewal amendment just over a year ahead of a general election due by May 2018. “But if the civilian judicial system fails to perform, and things go back to as they were before 2015, we may have no choice but to clamour for a similar amendment,” said human rights lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani.

Pakistan’s two major anti-terrorism laws — Anti-Terrorism Act and Protection of Pakistan Act – are being merged into a one single overarching law to cover all terrorism related cases, after the expiry of the latter sometime ago. The new bill is in its draft form and is being reviewed by the Ministry of Law and Justice.

Political parties and legal experts have criticised the government for not setting up an alternate legal framework to replace military courts.

A proposal to replace the military courts with “speedy-trial courts” was being considered, an interior ministry official said on condition of anonymity, without elaborating.

At the time the law was introduced, MPs and the military argued that civilian courts were too slow for terrorism cases needed to be dealt with swiftly, since many judges, fearful of revenge, were reluctant to deliver verdicts.

The courts were seen as an “exceptional” short-term measure put in place to allow the government time to reform the criminal justice system.

But rights activists called for greater transparency.

In a statement issued to the media Friday, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said justice reform had not been carried out, and called for fair, credible 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, ICJ’s Asia Director.

“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 protections,” Zarifi added.

Analyst Imtiaz Gul said heavy criticism meant Pakistan was unlikely to extend the courts, saying the controversy had been an “embarrassment” to the country.

Quoting military sources, the ICJ said 274 people have been convicted by military courts since January 2015, of which 161 have been sentenced to death. Twelve of those have already been hanged.

”Military courts should never have the jurisdiction to try civilians, nor should they ever have the authority to impose death sentences,” rights group Amnesty International said in a report after the courts were established.

At least 27 convicts filed appeals with civilian courts, alleging coercion of confessions and denial of access to lawyers and evidence, research and media reports show.

Besides the opaque nature of the military courts, they have diverted focus from the need for wider judicial reform, lawyers say.

“The end of military courts will make no huge difference, as they weren´t conceived to fix the criminal justice system or end terrorism,” lawyer Babar Sattar told a news agency.

The measure sought to keep the military from getting too entangled in the criminal justice process, he said, while hastening proceedings for those arrested in military operations.

“It was an instrument of convenience,” Sattar said.