The International Commission of Jurists has issued the following statement on Pakistan's 21st Amendment military courts:
The Pakistan government must stop putting civilians charged with terrorism-related offences on trial before military tribunals, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in its Briefing Paper Military Injustice in Pakistan released today.
Since January 2015, when Pakistan empowered military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offences, 11 military courts have been constituted to hear cases related to terrorism.
These 11 military courts have thus far concluded the trials of 105 people, finding the defendants guilty in 81 cases. Seventy-seven people have been sentenced to death and four have been given life sentences. At least 12 people have been hanged after trials that are grossly unfair.
“There is no doubt that the Pakistan government has an obligation to protect people in Pakistan from terrorist acts, but military tribunals are not a proper or effective response to this real threat,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia Director.
“These tribunals are opaque and operate in violation of national and international fair trial standards, and so are not effective in providing justice, truth or even proper remedies for the victims of terrorism,” he added.
Families of 17 people convicted by military courts have alleged the convicts were denied a right to a fair trial in petitions to the Supreme Court. The Court is expected to issue rulings on the petitions imminently.
Specific violations alleged by the petitioners include: denial of the right to counsel of choice; failure to disclose the charges against the accused; and failure to give convicts copies of a judgment with evidence and reasons for the verdict.
In some cases, the petitioners have alleged the convicts were subjected to enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment, and in at least two cases, the petitioners have also alleged that the convicts were children under the age of 18 at the time they were arrested by law enforcement agencies.
Recent media reports of letters said to be from a judge (unnamed) of a military court have raised concerns about the accuracy of the testimonies against the accused; discrepancies between the charges and the evidence provided; and lack of legal training of military courts’ officers.
The ICJ is not in a position to verify the authenticity of the letters, but, noting the consistency of these concerns with those expressed by the ICJ and families of people convicted by military courts, the organization calls on the Pakistan government to investigate the allegations.
The ICJ reminds that in August last year, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the trial of civilians before military courts in contravention of long-established principles of international law and the Court’s own jurisprudence.
“The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to ensure that at the very least, the procedures of military courts meet basic standards of fairness,” Zarifi said.
The expansion of the jurisdiction of military tribunals through the amendments to the Constitution and the Pakistan Army Act were a key part of the Pakistani government’s 20-point “National Action Plan”, adopted following the horrific attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.
NAP envisioned military courts to be a short-term “solution” to try “terrorists”, to be operational only for a two-year period during which the Government would bring about necessary “reforms in criminal courts system to strengthen the anti-terrorism institutions.”
“Now, with just six months left before the 21st Amendment expires, Pakistan has also failed to address failures of the criminal justice system, which were used as a justification for military trials for militants,” Zarifi added.
The ICJ has called on the Pakistan government to roll back the system of “military injustice”, and ensure that the 21st Amendment is not extended at the expiration of the sunset clause.
The ICJ has also urged that Pakistan reinstate a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty in law and practice.