Friday, April 3, 2015

Daily Times Editorial April 4, 2015

Death penalty dance The first batch of six Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists have been sentenced to death and a seventh to life imprisonment by the newly founded military courts. The army chief has confirmed the death sentences according to ISPR DG Major General Asim Bajwa. He has revealed that these seven were involved in terrorism, slaughtering people, suicide bombing, abduction for ransom, colossal damage to life and property. The charges appear to justify the sentences, but what is missing is more specific detail about what cases they were tried in, when and where. Although these convicted terrorists have the right of appeal to a military court of appeal, observers are sceptical of such an appeals court’s ability to overturn a sentence endorsed by the COAS. It may be recalled that nine military courts were set up under the 21st constitutional amendment after the massacre at the Army Public School, Peshawar in January this year, which resulted in the deaths of 134 students and 19 teachers and others. As part of this legislation under the National Action Plan, the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act 2015 was also promulgated to empower these military courts to try civilians. Critics of the move thought it ceded too much power to the military. And as far as the track record of the old military courts is concerned, reports abound of allegations of torture and the accused being deprived of lawyers and access to evidence, i.e. due process. Further, military officials could dissolve a military court if they did not agree with its verdict and retry the defendants. Whether the new military courts have taken cognizance of these criticisms of past practice is not known. Only time and the working of these courts can reveal that, but no objective judgement would be possible without transparency and detail, both of which are missing in the announcement under discussion. Despite all these caveats and reservations, shared by rights groups here and abroad, many Pakistanis supported the setting up of the military courts earlier this year because of the virtually moribund civil justice system, including the anti-terrorism courts that were supposed to cut through the delays of the normal system and deliver verdicts in quick time. Unfortunately, the anti-terrorism courts too succumbed to the universal inertia of the justice system as a whole and the superior judiciary did not do much to overcome this anomaly. The judicial system delivers few and far between convictions, and is snowed under by a backlog of over one million cases. Police are often accused of torture, investigation and prosecution skills are conspicuous by their absence and not much has been done to reform this creaking edifice. Lawyers and judges, especially in the lower courts, are unfortunately perceived as open to bribery or intimidation. But having said all this, the facts on the other side are not such as to inspire confidence either. Reports speak of the military holding thousands of alleged terrorists in internment camps, especially in the tribal areas. There is little or no information on when or if these internees will be tried. The structure created alongside the military courts comprises provincial apex committees of civilian and military officials that recommend cases to the federal government for transfer to the military courts. Little is known about the process nationwide, although one report says the Punjab government has transferred six cases to the military courts and one is following, out of 46 cases assessed for the purpose. In turn the federal interior ministry reveals that around 50 cases have been transferred to the military courts, but this little tit bit only whets the appetite for more information. Human rights groups in Pakistan and internationally respected groups such as Amnesty International have been criticising the setting up of these military courts and the incremental lifting of the moratorium on executions that threatens 8,000 convicts on death row whose appeals process has been exhausted. The critics argue many of these convictions are ‘unsafe’ (not credible). Amongst the critics of the lifting of the moratorium can also be counted the EU, the implications for our recently acquired GSP Plus status having nevertheless been brushed aside by our authorities. For all these reasons, as well as most importantly the demands of justice, any and all trials in the military courts of alleged terrorists should be conducted as far as possible in the public eye, and where this is not possible for security reasons, adequate disclosure should follow any verdicts. Such transparency and information can only work towards the credibility of trials in the military courts and help to allay the critics’ apprehensions regarding miscarriages of justice.

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