Since their reinstatement in 2015, military courts in Pakistan have sentenced 186 convicts to death and issued verdicts for more than 300 terrorism-related cases, the country’s Ministry of Defense said last week.
The figures were released by the ministry in response to an inquiry by Pakistan’s Lower House of Parliament about the status of concluded, pending and ongoing cases in the military courts.
Military courts have proved to be controversial between the military and civilian establishments of Pakistan. The civilian courts have questioned reinstating military courts since the country has a functioning judiciary system.
The last time the country relied on military courts was in the late 1970s, during the rule of Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s former army chief-turned-president. Since then, the country’s constitution had prevented civilians from being tried in military courts.
That changed in 2015, however, after a terror attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killed more than 130 people, a majority of them children.
Following the attack, the country adopted a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) to address the growing threat of terrorism and militancy in the country.
One of the proposals in the plan was to reinstate the military courts, as civilian courts either could not provide faster trials for suspected militants or were reluctant to do so, fearing retaliation from militant groups operating in the country.
The country’s parliament amended the constitution and allowed military courts to handle terrorism-related cases for two years. In January 2017, parliament extended the military courts’ authority for another two years, until 2019.
Lawmakers also passed new amendments, such as allowing suspects to have a defense attorney of their choice, requiring suspects to make an appearance in court within 24 hours, and implementing the rules of evidence in court proceedings.
11 military courts
There are several military courts operating in the country, including three in Punjab, two in Sindh, three in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one in Balochistan province, according to local media.
The Daily Express Tribune, a Pakistan-based daily English-language newspaper, released statistics on military court convictions.
In the past three years, the courts have acquitted one person, convicted and given life sentences to 79 people, and sentenced more than 70 others to jail time ranging from seven to 20 years, the paper said.
Defense officials told the parliament that the military courts are currently hearing 101 cases, and 52 other cases have been dropped because of a lack of evidence.
Some observers were pleased by the defense ministry’s response to parliament, seeing it as a step toward accountability and transparency. They criticized, however, the seemingly ambiguous and secret nature of these military courts, which do not release such information.
“Since the time of its inception, the nation has had concerns regarding the secret ways these military courts work. The defense ministry’s response is to answer a few of those questions, but the ambiguity is largely still there,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security and military analyst, told VOA.
“Considering it’s hard to question the army in the country, the defense ministry’s response to the parliament will set a good precedent as parliament is above all institutions,” Rizvi added.
Lawmakers also were told that 151 so-called mercy petitions filed at the military courts were sent to the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and he rejected them.
Some legal experts and rights activists have voiced concerns about the existence of parallel court systems in the country and question the military courts’ procedures, fairness and legality under the constitution.
“In 2015, the whole nation was in a shock after the school massacre and politicians felt compelled to pass the amendment to allow military tribunals to work,” Shama Junejo, a rights activist, told VOA.
“The nation needs to be taken into confidence [about] what’s happening there. Who are the people that are being tried in these courts? These are legitimate concerns that still need answers even after three years of [the military courts'] inception,” Junejo added.
Some of the concerns are that the military courts conduct trials in secrecy. Media outlets and the public are not allowed to follow or attend the hearings. The defendants until last year were not even allowed to choose a defense lawyer of their choice.
Some experts even question the military court justices, arguing they lack the required legal qualifications to serve as judges and issue verdicts.
But others like Ikram Chaudhry, a senior Supreme Court advocate, defend the military courts.
“The civil court system has its own challenges and needs reforms badly. It is an outdated system, and hundreds of thousands of cases remain pending for years, sometimes even for generations,” Chaudhry told VOA.
“Also, the civil court judges are threatened by terror elements ... making it harder for them to convict militants,” Chaudhry added.