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January 8, 2019

Through constitutional amendment: Govt talking to opposition for extending military courts

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January 8, 2019

ISLAMABAD: The first constitutional amendment that the government will attempt to get passed by parliament seeks an extension of the military courts to try civilian charged with terrorism.

Article 10A, inserted in the Constitution by the eighteenth amendment, says for the determination of his civil rights and obligations or in any criminal charge against him a person shall be entitled to a fair trial and due process.

Senior PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal told The News that the opposition parties are expected to take a joint stand on the extension of the military courts. “We will keep in view the detailed judgement of the Supreme Court on the original constitutional amendment that had given these powers to the military courts,” he said and pointed out that it was during his party’s tenure that such forums were accorded this authority.

PPP leader Chaudhry Manzoor told this correspondent that had the counterterrorism National Action Plan (NAP) been implemented in its true letter and spirit, there would have been no need of extension of the military courts. “Our party will hold consultations with the other opposition entities on the extension of the military courts.”

Shunning its public tough stance against the opposition parties on a variety of issues, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is eager to negotiate with them and has expressed its keenness to approve the extension of the military courts.

The government is already talking to the opposition to bring about consensus amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) as directed by the Supreme Court and those proposed by its rivals.

“We have been approached by the government side, seeking our support for the constitutional bill,” a prominent leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) told The News on condition of anonymity. So did a stalwart of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Both expressed the view that regardless of the decision taken by their parties, some of their MPs are unlikely to vote for the constitutional bill for their own reservations. Some PML-N leaders fear that some of their MNAs, who are opposed to military courts, won't vote for continuing the setup.

“I for one will not support it,” a PML-N hawk said. “Four years was a sufficient period for military courts to dispose of such cases. We have the Anti-Terrorism Act in place which can expeditiously take care of such offenders.”

When the military courts were given this power for the first time and subsequently when their domain was extended for two years, parliament unanimously approved the constitutional bills. The PTI and its allies are in no position to pass single-handed any constitutional amendment because they lack a two-third majority in both the parliamentary chambers. They don’t even have a simple majority in the Senate.

Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor has publicly supported extension of the military courts saying that terrorists have to be dealt with sternly, the menace is yet to be fully tackled, and it's up to parliament to take a decision.

The Law Ministry has informed the National Assembly standing committee on law and justice that the summary for extension in military courts has been forwarded to the federal cabinet for approval.

These courts were allowed to try civilians charged with terrorism in January 2015 for the first time after an unprecedented terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014. Some 144 people, mostly children, were killed.

The courts were given a two-year constitutional cover as both houses of the parliament passed the 21st constitutional amendment with the inclusion of a sunset clause despite fears among lawmakers that the tribunals they were authorising would not be able to ensure due process to the suspects and might undermine democracy.

The courts remained dysfunctional from Jan 7, 2017 due to expiry of the two-year constitutional cover till March 2017, when they were extended for another two years by parliament amid controversy that the constitutional cover could not be given to the Military Act under which these courts were resumed.

Last month, Defence Minister Pervez Khattak told the National Assembly that the military authorities had to decide 185 cases of terrorists in three months (till March). Over the past couple of weeks, Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has confirmed the death sentences and other convictions awarded to several terrorists, tried by the military courts. Although the civilian courts are barred from hearing the cases of those convicted by the military tribunals, high courts have been seized with many petitions filed by such convicts.

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