Sunday, January 4, 2015

The case for (and against) military courts in Pakistan

"If normal courts are not working up to the mark and given the ongoing terrorist attacks throughout the country, there is no alternat[iv]e left except setting up speedy trial military courts for coping with the present situation. The rationale of setting up these courts is merely to dispense speedy justice which is [the] demand of the day, and not at all to undermine the judiciary itself. Corruption cases also need to be tri[]ed in special courts. Unless culprits are prosecuted and punished speedily, the terrorism in different shapes will be going on. [The] Supreme Court of Pakistan, considering the current scenario, should strengthen the military courts and reject the petitions raising voices against the proposed legislation."

Shaukat Masood Zafar, writing here in the Pakistan Tribune

For an opposing view see this op-ed by Prof. Hassan Javid in The Nation:
In the past two weeks, a number of justifications have been trotted out for the establishment of military courts. It has been argued that civilian courts and law enforcement agencies simply lack the capacity and the will to effectively deal with terrorism, with this being reflected in their inability to successfully investigate and prosecute many of the cases brought before them. It has also been suggested that these military courts will be different from those that have come before them by virtue of the fact that they will have been introduced by a democratically elected government subjecting them to continuous civilian oversight. Finally, the notion that these courts can provide ‘speedy justice’, shorn of the constraints under which civilian courts operate, has gained credence in an environment where the Peshawar tragedy has stoked increasingly strident calls for terrible retribution to be wreaked upon the Taliban and their ilk.
These arguments are flawed on multiple levels. It is imperative to understand that terrible as the events in Peshawar were, they do not represent the first major act of terror perpetrated on Pakistani soil. For the better part of three decades, this country has borne witness to a rising tide of bigotry and intolerance accompanied by sectarian violence and militancy. In this time, under both military and civilian governments, little has been done to deal with this. Rather than strengthening Pakistan’s courts and police force, or propagating a counter-narrative aimed at delegitimizing the pernicious discourse of extremism propagated by the country’s millinerian zealots, the political establishment, including the military, have been content to choose the path of expediency, preferring to tolerate any and all atrocities in the name of ‘strategic depth’. Given that tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died at the hands of terrorists in the past decade alone, why is it only now that the powers-that-be seem to have woken up to the idea that the country faces a, ‘grave and unprecedented threat’? Could nothing have been done to improve the courts before? When known terrorists first started to get acquitted, was there no realization that something was amiss? More importantly, why is that nothing continues to be done about this state of affairs? Even if it the need for military courts were to be conceded, exactly what measures is the government taking to rectify the problems with civilian courts? Assuming that military courts remain in place for just two years (remote as that possibility is), how exactly will the capacity of civilian institutions be built up in the interim? What exactly will change in two years that will equip these bodies to perform tasks that they ostensibly cannot undertake at present?
According to the text of the 21st amendment, terrorism poses a threat to the principles laid out in the Preamble to the Constitution. Given that this document deals with the provision of fundamental rights to the citizens of Pakistan, how exactly will that purpose be served by an unaccountable system of military ‘justice’? How will the independence of the judiciary, another principle enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution, be ensured? What exactly will military courts achieve in an environment where children across the country, not just in madrassahs but also in schools and colleges, continue to be exposed to a toxic national discourse that demonizes minorities, valorizes religious war and violence, and glorifies praetorian politics? The Preamble to the Constitution also promises the people of Pakistan economic and social justice. In the presence of a predatory system of capitalist exploitation buttressed by virtually non-existent provision of public goods and services like healthcare and education, is it really surprising to find people turning to extremist ideologies that promise them change or, at the very least, a better afterlife? For all the emphasis on military solutions to Pakistan’s problems, on the battlefield and in the courts, what exactly is the strategy for addressing the root causes of extremism? You cannot bomb poverty out of existence (although you can bomb the poor), and all the military trials in the world will not undo the damage done by decades of state-sponsored ideological indoctrination.

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