Sultan M Hali
DURING the Second World War, when the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) was wreaking havoc over London with its incessant aerial bombing attacks, the British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill took cognizance of the heavy casualties and economic devastation. He asked, “Are the courts functioning?” When told that the judges were dispensing justice as normal, Churchill replied, “Thank God. If the courts are working, nothing can go wrong.” Pakistan, which is facing a crisis no less than WW II because of incessant terror attacks, chaos and turmoil in the political arena, acute shortage of energy and water, near absence of law and order, corruption charges against its leaders, mounting international debts, aggression by both its eastern and western neighbours and constant threats by the Occident, should ask the same question. Unfortunately, the same courts which dispense justice are being denigrated by the politicians that are under trial for corruption charges.
Even a cursory glance at the Constitution of Pakistan, Part VII: The Judicature, Chapter 1, “The Courts deal with the Establishment and Jurisdiction of Courts” confirms the validity of the legal institutions. It elucidates, “There shall be a Supreme Court of Pakistan, a High Court for each Province and a High Court for the Islamabad Capital Territory and such courts as may be established by law. No court shall have any jurisdiction save as is or may be conferred on it by the Constitution or by under any law. The Judiciary shall be separated progressively from the Executive…”Prior to the 2018 elections, Mian Nawaz Sharif et alia had been stressing that the people’s vote’s sanctity must be respected. In his political rallies, he promised that after winning the elections in 2018, he would restore justice and the sanctity of the vote. What held him back from doing so in his three previous terms as Prime Minister?
Similarly, the previous government had serious reservations regarding the military courts. Readers may recall that the military courts were set up for speedy trial of militants after they attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 and killed around 150 people, mostly children. The whole nation had been badly shaken by the most gruesome attacks ever and numerous decisions were taken to combat terrorism effectively. A National Action Plan (NAP) comprising twenty points was approved. One of the items on the agenda was the establishment of military courts. This aspect was debated hotly in Parliament as well as in media and petitions to stop the military courts from meting verdicts and trying terrorists in the military courts were filed.
The plea of the plaintiff was that in the presence of a free and fair judiciary, there was no requirement of the military courts. The counter argument was that trials of the suspected terrorists in the open judicial system, the judiciary was at times unable to mete justice since numerous witnesses backed out apparently after receiving threats from the terror mongers or the extremist groups to which the accused belonged. In some cases, the judge, who gave a verdict of guilty to the terrorists, was either eliminated or forced to flee the country for the fear of his life. Ultimately, on August 05, 2015, the Supreme Court (SC), in a majority ruling upheld the establishment of military courts in Pakistan. Petitions challenging the 21st amendment were dismissed in a majority 11-6 vote of the 17-member SC bench.
The observation of the detractors was that the military courts work behind closed doors while their decisions are only made public when endorsed by the Army Chief. Specific details like venue and date of trial and officials involved are obviously withheld due to security reasons. People of Pakistan want the perpetrators to be punished and expect their elected representatives to ensure that justice and judicial reforms are not delayed. Speedy trials in military courts ensured that justice is neither delayed nor denied. Country is going through extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary decisions are the need of the hour. Military courts saw execution of some hardcore terrorists that helped break their organizational network. Cases are disposed of in weeks and months without long delays by the military courts as compared to civil courts. Delays suit militants as our jails are considered haven for them. By being a security institution, and fighting war against terrorism, no other institution understands the convicts and charges against them better than Army does. Army is well trained to hold military courts and carryout trials as part of Pakistan Army Act-1952. Its judicial branch comprises judicial officers well versed in the process of trying those who break the law.
People of Pakistan want the perpetrators to be punished. They expect from their elected representatives to ensure that effective justice is not delayed. Military courts are inherent to create fear and distress among the terrorists and hardcore criminals as the cases are disposed of in weeks and months. Military courts, lessen the pressure and risk factor on the life of civil judicial elements. The world recognizes that Pakistan is the only country in the modern world history that has been able to nearly eliminate terrorism from its soil. Military courts have played a very important role to achieve this success. Pakistan has taken certain measures to fulfil the demands of FATF by taking punitive measures against the terrorists and miscreants and military courts is one such example.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.