Thursday, December 25, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Dec 26, 2014

Military courts The daylong deliberations by the All Parties Conference (APC) in which the military top brass participated, produced a consensus action plan comprising 19 points. Many of these are reiterations of what has long been known to be necessary and on which agreement was therefore relatively easy. The ‘new’ amongst them could be seen to be the continuation of executions of convicted terrorists, establishment of special trial courts for two years to be manned by military personnel after a constitutional amendment, a commitment not to allow any armed militias to operate in the country, countering hate material and speech, choking terrorist financing, ensuring banned organisations do not reinvent themselves with different names, registration and regulation of madrassas, ban on coverage of terrorists in the media, proscribing the use of the internet and social media by terrorists, zero tolerance for militancy in Punjab, the Karachi operation to be taken to its logical conclusion, empowering the Balochistan government for political reconciliation, and dealing firmly with sectarian terrorists. This alone is quite a hefty agenda, never mind the need to beef up the anti-terrorism regime’s architecture. Apart from the sheer volume of tasks the political forces and the government have set themselves in this action plan, about which reservations about implementation capacity still linger, many troubling questions refuse to go away. To start with, ‘special courts’ manned by military personnel is only a euphemism for military courts. Pakistan’s experience of military courts is not positive. Their summary procedures run the risk of convicting innocents and producing widespread miscarriages of justice. Unfortunately, the civilian judicial system has failed to come up to scratch, hence even parties that had objections to the idea were finally persuaded by the sunset clause of two years and assurances they would only deal with terrorism-related cases. The Chief Justice of Pakistan’s meeting with all the chief justices of the high courts and ordering day-to-day hearings in anti-terrorism courts, monitoring of progress, etc, can only be considered too little too late. The civilian judicial system came in for a bit of stick in the APC’s deliberations for having failed to deliver. After all the ATCs were supposed to conduct day-to-day hearings ab initio and deliver verdicts in seven days, but that wish has gone abegging. Executions in the wake of the lifting of the moratorium on hangings has evoked concerns amongst a wide section of society, including lawyers and human rights defenders, as well as the European Union (recall GSP+). The US, on the other hand, has taken the ‘diplomatic’ position that this is an ‘internal’ matter of Pakistan (the US retains the death penalty and is accused of having one of the highest rates of executions in the world). When the action plan proscribes banned organisations re-emerging with new names, does this imply outfits like Jamaat-ud-Dawa would also be taken to task? That will be one of the litmus tests of the new policy. Grasping the nettle of registration and regulation of madrassas firmly will require will and determination that has been conspicuous by its absence over decades. The recognition of Punjab as a ‘safe haven’ for many terrorist and sectarian groups is a late dawning of wisdom, but better late than never. In the wake of the Peshawar tragedy, our usual cast of suspects who think every problem can be resolved by handing it over to the army have been increasingly crawling out of the woodwork. The history and track record of the disasters called military regimes are forgotten. It is not unusual for states and societies in crisis, as we surely are, to see loud calls for a ‘strong man’ (usually on horseback) to take charge and ‘sort out’ whatever mess is on display. This is a shortsighted and erroneous effort to seek a shortcut to what is a complex task, challenge, and existential struggle requiring the mobilisation of political and civil society, the people and all anti-terrorist forces. Military courts by any other name are bad enough. MQM’s Altaf Hussain’s call for martial law takes the cake though. An interesting sidelight on the APC is the ‘confession’ by a PTI spokesman that they agreed to military courts because ‘the army asked for them’! The less said the better. All these reservations and questions may seem like quibbling when the ‘whole’ country seems to be united behind the newfound anti-terrorism resolve. But it is often when everyone around you is losing their heads that it is time to take a deep breath, consider carefully and not get carried away by emotion. Scrutiny of what is planned and how it is carried out, in the interest of an efficacious and correct policy against terrorism, remains a duty.

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