Pakistan's military government is under fire for changes in the country's anti-terrorism law that would allow army officers to serve as judges in special anti-terrorist courts. Critics say the move undermines the rule of law and judicial independence. The government says the changes are meant to ensure speedy trials for people involved in religious violence or acts of terrorism.

The government of President General Pervez Musharraf has taken a number of steps in recent months to crack down on extremists, rounding up hundreds of suspects. The government says that those detained are responsible for encouraging religious violence and hatred in Pakistan.

To discourage such activities, the military government last month introduced amendments to an anti-terrorism law, which would put civilian and military judges together on the same court. These special courts will try suspects charged with crimes classified as terrorism, including kidnapping for ransom, hijacking, and inciting religious or ethnic hatred.

Major-General Rashid Qureshi is a spokesman for the military government. He says the current judicial system has been unable to bring those involved in religious violence or acts of terrorism to justice.

For many years, General Qureshi said, the accused and their supporters have intimidated the justice system by threat and attack. "A stage had come where in certain cases there were people who were not willing to sit in judgement," he said. "There were people who were not willing to prosecute a case. And there were witnesses who refused to give evidence because of fears of their lives and for the lives of their families. In order to provide security, this decision has been made where it will be ensured that the judges, the prosecutors, and the witnesses are provided safety and security, so that cases in which these acts of terrorism were being tried can be conducted smoothly and quickly."

But the anti-terrorism law changes have come under criticism from opposition parties, lawyers, and human rights activists. They have also been challenged in Pakistan's highest court.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said the changes are unconstitutional. "This is an attempt by the military government of General Pervez Musharraf to militarize the judiciary," he said. We believe that, now, the doors of corruption in the judiciary will be opened. The independence of the judiciary would be compromised."

Mr. Babar disputes the government's argument that the presence of military officers will provide security to the court proceedings. "Of course, the military is bound to provide security," he said. "But the job of the military officer is to stand at the gate of the court and provide security, and not to sit on the bench of the court to provide security."

Pakistan's Law minister Shahida Jameel says that, in order to tackle the issue of terrorism, the government has to take extraordinary measures. She says establishment of combined courts is a temporary move, but the government needs to take such steps.

"We have a serious situation of terrorism. We have been talking about it for years in this country, and this government has also taken up this issue," he said. "It will definitely make a difference if we allow the exercise to run its proper course, with proper supervision of the judiciary."

The special courts would be made up of two civilian judges and an army officer of the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Lawyer Akram Sheikh says the new courts would be extra-judiciary and represent an attempt by the military government to usurp the judiciary.

"This government can act in place of the executive, and can also resort to certain emergency legislative measures," he said. "But it cannot, under any circumstances, act in place of the courts, or to supplant the existing set up of the courts."

In a statement, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says the new anti-terrorism law violates the established principles of justice. It calls the move a new and serious obstacle to restoring meaningful democracy and a just dispensation in the country.

During a trip to Pakistan last week, a member of Germany's Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights Imgrad Schwaetzer also expressed concern over the government's move. "We share the concern because we are of the opinion that civil law and civil justice should be strictly separated from military justice," he said. "So to introduce special military courts would not fit into our ideas of democratic state of law."

Pakistani leader General Musharraf took power in a bloodless military coup in October 1999. He holds all executive and law-making powers under a Supreme Court ruling, but only until October.

That is the deadline set by Pakistan's highest court for him to hand over power to a civilian government, following national parliamentary elections.