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Pakistan Court Limits Extension of Army Chief, Orders Change in Law

n this March 23, 2019 photo, Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, center, watches a parade with Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, Pakistan.
n this March 23, 2019 photo, Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, center, watches a parade with Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court limited the tenure extension of the sitting army chief to six months Thursday, as opposed to the three years the government wanted to grant him. In addition, the court has asked the government to use the time to amend laws to clarify the terms and conditions of the post, including the length of tenure and whether that tenure could be extended.

“[I]nspite of the assistance rendered by the learned Attorney-General, we could not find any provision relating to the tenure of COAS [Chief of Army Staff] or of a General and whether the COAS can be reappointed or his term can be extended or his retirement can be limited or suspended under the Constitution or the law,” the court wrote in its order.

Once the new legislation is enacted, the court said, it would determine the future of army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure and other conditions of service.

On Tuesday, the court suspended a government notification extending General Bajwa’s term for three years.

The decision sent shock waves through a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half of its existence and where the military is considered to be the most powerful institution, widely believed to be secretly wielding influence over other institutions like the executive, the parliament, and the judiciary.

Bajwa is not the first army chief to receive an extension. Several army chiefs in the past, some of them dictators, served multiple terms. However, no one ever challenged such actions in court. In the last two decades, only one army chief, Raheel Sharif, stepped down at the end of his term of three years.

For the last three days, the case has received almost non-stop coverage in local media. Television news channels have repeated the judges’ words in court almost verbatim.

Many in the country, including the top court, were surprised by the fact that the terms of service of the army chief’s office, considered to be one of the most powerful in the country, were not clearly described in the law.

“In the proceedings before us during the last three days the Federal Government has moved from one position to another referring to it as reappointment, limiting of retirement or extension of tenure,” the court said in its judgment, also noting that the government also kept changing its position on whether it drew the authority to grant an extension from the constitution or from a particular set of laws governing the army.

The court’s proceedings, particularly because of the possibility that the judges might strike down the extension completely, threatened to pit the judiciary against the military. Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed relief that it did not happen.

“Today must be a great disappointment to those who expected the country to be destabilized by a clash of institutions. That this did not happen must be of special disappointment to our external enemies & mafias within -,” he tweeted.

At a press conference Thursday evening, Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan, who represented the government, called it a historic judgment.

“The interpretation of the constitution in this judgment will help us in the future as well,” he said, explaining that the laws ruling the army dated back to a time when the British ruled the region, before 1947, and were being used with minor changes.