January 12, 2017Print : Editorial
Just a few days after the military courts set up under the 21st Amendment stopped functioning, the government has engaged itself in an apparent effort to restore them. It should instead have encouraged debate on the way forward. Military courts – and let it be said clearly that the idea should have been unwelcome the first time around – were introduced as a temporary emergency measure needed to effectively fight the threat of militancy. That threat, while not yet eliminated, has been reduced and there is no longer any justification for the secrecy and lower standards of evidence of military courts. Claims of victory have been made repeatedly by both the government and the military. A democratic society needs an open and independent judiciary and the parallel military courts undermine that principle. The secrecy with which the government is dealing with the issue does not help matters. It has failed to make the case that the courts are still required. It does not, at the moment, have the support of the opposition parties. But the moment this time too may turn out to be transitory after some empty posturing – to be followed by shedding of a few convenient tears a la Rabbani in 2015. Yet, our politicians and those behind the move certainly know that this would eat into immensely valuable civilian space.
The case against military courts is strengthened by the existence of anti-terrorist courts, which have been functioning since 1997 and have now become a part of the judicial system. Why we need to add another layer in the form of military courts is unclear. Surely it would be more rational to permit the task of trying people suspected of terrorism to go back to the civilian judicial setup and its trained judges. The anti-terrorism courts should be permitted to do so instead of being used to try cases that have nothing to do with terrorism such as those relating to rape and kidnapping cases. They in fact have been moved far beyond their pale and even handled trials like that of political activist Baba Jan. The example of anti-terrorism courts shows that once such courts are set up they tend to expand beyond their original jurisdiction. Thus, even if one were inclined to support military courts for civilians who have been accused of terrorism, there is every chance that these courts will end up hearing more cases than originally intended. That will only end up causing graver damage to democratic norms. Instead, the judiciary should be assisted in this matter by all agencies that work for the state. We also, very respectfully, venture to wonder about the opinion of the judiciary itself in this matter – since it was and is, after all, a matter of institutional jurisdiction as well. For now, it is up to parliament to decide on the issue. The government should refrain from introducing yet another ordinance to bypass parliament and should also avoid calling a joint sitting to use its brute majority to force it through. The rest should boil down to this: the sun should set on military courts.