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Watchdog: Pakistan's Military Courts 'Disaster' for Human Rights

FILE - A paramilitary soldier stands guard outside a court building in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 2, 2014.

A global advocate for justice is calling on Pakistan not to use the tenure of its military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offenses, saying that doing so would constitute a "disaster" for human rights.

The military tribunals have been in operation since January 2015. At that time, the Pakistani parliament authorized them for two years to conduct trials of suspected terrorists in a bid to deter growing terrorism in the country.

The authorization was extended for another two years and will lapse on March 30 unless lawmakers approve another extension.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said that the military "justice system” is a “glaring surrender” of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Pakistan. The ICJ said, "Fears that repeated extensions risk making an abusive and discredited process effectively permanent."

The ICJ denunciation comes as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government consults with opposition parties on legislation to extend the tenure of the courts.

The ICJ cited “serious fair trials violations in the operation of military courts, including: denial of the right to counsel of choice; failure to disclose the charges against the accused; denial of a public hearing; a very high number of convictions – more than 97 percent – based on “confessions” without adequate safeguards against torture and ill treatment.”

The Pakistani military announced last month the special courts have handed down death sentences to 310 people and 56 of them have been executed. It added that the executions of a remaining 254 people are pending upon the completion of the legal process in the civilian courts.

The army’s media wing noted that 234 people were given “rigorous imprisonment” terms of varied duration ranging from life terms to a minimum duration of five years, and two of the accused were acquitted.

The army released the details while the country was observing the anniversary of the December 2014 massacre of more than 150 people, mostly children, at an army-run public school in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

The militant attack caused outraged among Pakistanis and prompted the then-parliament to allow the military to try civilians linked to terrorist groups or organizations instigating violence in the name of religion.

Convicts are allowed to challenge the sentences in civilian courts, although none of the sentences has been overturned to date.

Lawyers and families in appeal proceedings in civilian courts have questioned evidence in some cases and alleged their relatives were coerced into confessions.

The Pakistani army and civilian officials reject the charges and maintain the legislation allowing the trials binds the special tribunals to conduct “fair and transparent” hearings.

Political parties have backed the military courts, noting Pakistan’s regular judicial system does not offer protection to witnesses. Moreover, judges and attorneys prosecuting suspected hardcore militants have complained of receiving death threats, or have come under attack.

The ICJ's statement criticized authorities for failing to enact promised reforms to strengthen the criminal justice system during the four years of operation for the military courts.