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Pakistan Approves Military Courts for Civilian Terror Suspects

  • Ayaz Gul

Supporters of Pakistani civil society groups rally against Taliban and militants in Lahore, Pakistan. Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.

Supporters of Pakistani civil society groups rally against Taliban and militants in Lahore, Pakistan. Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.

Pakistan’s parliament has approved the creation of special trial courts supervised by army officers to swiftly prosecute civilian terrorism suspects. The move is one of a raft of measures the country has introduced to stem violent extremism after Taliban militants massacred 150 people, almost all of them children, last month.

Both houses of parliament overwhelmingly backed the bill, which President Mamnoon Hussain is expected to sign into law this week. It would allow the new courts to be set up for a two-year period.

Islamist party members abstained from voting, alleging the law is designed to target religious groups in the name of countering extremism. Long-running political differences with the government also kept lawmakers from Imran Khan’s opposition party from Tuesday’s vote, but it has promised full support to the formation of military courts.

Fear of overreach in aftermath of school attack

Some critics have expressed fears the government might use the military tribunals against political opponents.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to allay those concerns to Pakistan's senate, saying “only hard-core terrorists involved in murdering children, women, men, security forces and government officials will be tried in the military courts.” He argued that extremist and terrorist forces pose an existential threat to the country and “extra-ordinary” steps are needed to root out this menace.

The legislation came three weeks after suicide bombers attacked a military-run school in Peshawar, killing 134 children and 16 staff members. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. In a video message Monday, its fugitive leader, Mullah Fazlullah, vowed to attack more children.

The school attack outraged Pakistanis and prompted Mr. Sharif to reinstate the death penalty two days after the massacre. Several “hard-core terrorists” convicted on previous terrorism charges have since been executed.

Alternatives to military tribunals

Human rights advocates oppose the military courts and emphasize the need for strengthening existing civilian courts and improving police investigation methods to bring terrorists to justice.

Chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Zohra Yusaf, told VOA Deewa Service she fears the military courts could violate human rights in the course of punishing terrorists. She called their creation "a big setback for the country’s judicial system.”

Widespread support

But even staunch critics of the Pakistani military, like Senator Afrasiab Khattak, voted for the army-run courts. “We are at war with terrorism," he said, adding "the situation of the country is such that we required speedy courts that would decide the fate of terrorists in no time."

"The bitter pill of this new law is being swallowed for the security of Pakistan," said Syed Khurshid Ahmed Shah, opposition leader in the parliament.

Supporters of the military courts cite deadly attacks on civilian judges, prosecutors, police officers and flaws in existing laws for low conviction rates in terrorism-related cases in past years.

Additional reporting by Iftikhar Hussain in Washington.

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