Pakistan’s two largest opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have joined forces against the government’s planned move to grant an extension to the military courts.
The two parties are concerned about the army’s overreach into politics and have also expressed their discontent with an overlapping of the military and judiciary that they say the military courts represent.
Observers have noted a judicial bias in favor of the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in verdicts leading up to the party’s electoral success last year. Pakistan Prime Minister and PTI chief Imran Khan, given his reluctance to challenge the military supremacy in the country, has often been seen as ‘army-backed.’
Many observers have also suggested the judiciary has functioned at the behest of the military establishment. This has prompted concerns over the political implications of the potential extension being given to the military courts.
The courts were established in January 2015 after a terrorist attack on the Army Public School, as part of a National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism. Originally designed for a two-year period, the military courts were given a two-year extension in March 2017 by the previous PML-N government, only months after they had become dysfunctional.
A senior PML-N leader who spoke to Asia Times said: “We had given them an extension because we still felt that the threat of terrorism was considerable enough in the country. But now the government, which only came to power thanks to the military and judiciary, wants to maintain the connection between those two institutions to keep itself in power and let the army rule the country.”
‘Not in favor’
With the military courts set to become dysfunctional again on March 23, government insiders confirm that the PTI is set to table a bill for their extension. However, with a two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill through parliament, the PTI leadership also needs the support of the opposition parties. The PPP, however, has been vocal in its criticism of the proposed extension, with party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari reiterating his opposition to the move.
Senior PPP leader Farhatullah Babar said: “(The) PPP has its human rights agenda … we don’t want the judiciary to be militarized and the military to be judicialized.” Apart from the opposition, rights activists have also denounced the move to extend military courts.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has asked that fair trials be given to everyone, maintaining that “there is little evidence to show that military courts have succeeded in increasing respect for the rule of law.”
Pakistan has witnessed a significant decline in terror attacks in recent years, with the frequency of attacks at its lowest since 2005. Given the plunge in terror-related incidents, questions are being asked about the need for military courts.
Not only a challenge to military hegemony
While the opposition parties claim their resistance to the move is rooted in challenging the army’s hegemony and the institutional overlapping between the military and judiciary, some analysts see this move as a bargaining chip extended by the PML-N and PPP to save their leaders who are embroiled in graft cases.
Senior PPP leaders, including party co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, are fighting money laundering cases. This comes after the Supreme Court disqualified PML-N leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding a government position.
Sharif was sentenced to seven years in prison by an accountability court in the latest verdict against him in December.
“The PPP’s relations with the military aren’t particularly good right now and they feel that the accountability cases against Zardari have been orchestrated by the army. Therefore, anything that the army will do, they will oppose it to put some pressure on the military,” said former Punjab Chief Minister Hassan Askari Rizvi and the author of The Military and Politics in Pakistan: 1947 – 1997.
Rizvi added: “Let’s not forget that it’s the same PPP that voted in favor of military courts in 2015 without any objections. That was because the political realities were different at the time. The military courts’ extension has become a political question, not a legal one.”
Civilian leadership criticized
While there are concerns about the army’s involvement in politics, the civilian leadership is also being criticized for its inability to make the judicial system more effective.
The military courts were given time to bring about the judicial reforms needed to ensure that terror cases were efficiently dealt with and so with the reforms still pending, military courts are expected to be given an extension.
Former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production Lieutenant General Talat Masood said: “The government has little choice but to extend the military courts. But if you keep on extending the scope of the military, you start giving them more and more power [in civilian domains]. This isn’t just true for [judiciary] but also other fields. The civilian government couldn’t even conduct the census [in 2017] without the army.”