The following report appeared in today's Daily Times:
The National Assembly passed a resolution extending the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Ordinance 2015 for another 120 days starting from June 25 amidst rowdy scenes, protests and walkouts by the opposition, led first and foremost by the MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement]. The Ordinance in question was adopted earlier this year in the wake of the Army Public School Peshawar massacre of students and faculty and as a follow up to the 21st Amendment. It empowers the military to set up courts to try civilian terrorism suspects. It also allows these military courts to decide whether the proceedings will be held in open court or in-camera. Given the security sensitivity of such trials, protection is available for judges, lawyers and witnesses. The problem arose when Defence Minister Khwaja Asif was invited by the chair to move a resolution for the extension of the Ordinance after suspending the rules. The MQM members objected to this procedural departure, incurring in the process the rather unparliamentary castigation of the resolution’s mover, who accused the objectors of being fearful that the Ordinance would bring them to book for their wrongdoings. Naturally, this raised the temperature unnecessarily. All the efforts of the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to calm down the opposition by pointing out that the resolution was only an attempt to save the Ordinance from lapsing went in vain after Khwaja Asif’s inflammatory rhetoric. The opposition’s other complaint was that a bill should have been moved instead of a resolution to extend the life of the Ordinance for another 120 days. The treasury benches did not disagree with the notion, but said this would follow.The scenes in the National Assembly point to a number of lessons from the episode. One, a relatively simple matter is escalated to a clash by the intemperate behaviour of ministers who cannot seem to keep things in perspective. From a procedural objection, because of the insulting attitude of Khwaja Asif, the matter became an unnecessary clash. Two, the government’s reference to or reminder of the unanimity that attended the passing of the original Ordinance only served to underline that things have changed within the space of a few months since those days when in the aftermath of the Army Public School Peshawar incident, few could resist the mood of seeing effective action against the terrorists. It may be recalled how Raza Rabbani and Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan at that time expressed their reservations and reluctance to pass the 21st Amendment, but felt they had no recourse except to go along with the expressed sentiment of anger at the time. Now it seems that earlier ‘unanimity’ has frayed at the edges and the opposition is less willing to give the government and the military carte blanche for military trials of suspects. Despite the argument by the treasury benches that it is parliament’s failure to pass a bill that has necessitated reviving the Ordinance, the actual buck stops with the treasury benches who have failed to push the urgent legislation through the house. The expedient and all too easy resort to a resolution to keep the Ordinance alive, albeit temporarily, was not the wisest course on this touchy subject. The government it seems was as usual caught with its pants down and had no other alternative to buying another 120 days for the Ordinance. Now that the anger and atavistic responses to the Army Public School Peshawar massacre have cooled, this was the time to conduct an open and reasoned debate on the issue of military courts set up under the 21st Amendment and this presidential Ordinance for two years (the ‘sunset clause’). Instead of allowing the free play of views, both for and against the whole scheme of military courts, about which reservations and even rejectionist views still abound, the government has been lazy, incompetent and unnecessarily rude. Some leading treasury members need lessons in parliamentary etiquette. Others need to wake up to the need for doing things in timely fashion to avoid having to fall back on expedient but controversial devices to get their way. The opposition too needs to base its critique of military courts not merely on procedural details but on the substance of the issue. By their very nature, military courts violate due process and the right to a fair trial and defence. Even with a sunset clause, they will always be an aberration as far as the rule of law is concerned, without which no society can claim to be civilised.