(New York) - The Pakistan government should immediately withdraw amendments to the country’s Army Act which give wide-ranging powers to the military, including the power to arrest, detain and try any civilian, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The military is Pakistan’s principal human rights abuser and the use of torture by its intelligence agencies is widespread and well-documented,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Granting it legal authority to detain, interrogate and try its opponents amounts to throwing them to the lions and providing license for repression and torture.”

The law was amended by General Pervez Musharraf through presidential decree on November 10, a week after he suspended the constitution and unleashed a crackdown on the country’s judiciary, lawyers, human rights activists and opposition political activists.

Under the amendment to the 1952 Army Act, the military can now try civilians for a wide range of offenses previously under the purview of the country’s judiciary. These include offenses punishable under: the Explosive Substances Act, 1908; Prejudicial conduct under the Security of Pakistan Act, 1952; the Pakistan Arms Ordinance, 1965; the Prevention of Anti-National Activities Act, 1974; the Anti-terrorism Act, 1997; and several sections of the Pakistan Penal Code. For example, civilians can be tried in military courts for acts of treason, sedition and less specific offenses such as “giving statements conducive to public mischief.”

Trials of civilians conducted by special military courts under the amended law will not be public, investigations will be conducted by military officers, and rules of evidence and procedures laid out for constitutional trials will not apply. It is increasingly recognized under international human rights laws that the trial of civilians by military courts should be very exceptional and only occur under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.

The amendment will take effect retrospectively from January 2003, in effect sanctioning impunity of the army for detaining and “disappearing” people.

“This change in the law is a brazen attempt by the Pakistani military to avoid accountability for its widespread abuses,” said Adams. “By backdating the legal change, Musharraf is trying to conveniently kill cases pending before the Supreme Court concerning the ‘disappearances’ and torture of hundreds of his opponents.”

Before Musharraf effectively took control of the Supreme Court, it was investigating some 600 cases of “disappearances.” While some of these cases concerned terrorism suspects, many involved political opponents of the government. The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, publicly stated that it had overwhelming evidence that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies were detaining terror suspects and other opponents and repeatedly urging the authorities to free such individuals or process them through the legal system. In response to pressure from the Supreme Court, scores of those who “disappeared” were freed.

“Having ousted the judiciary and with it any hope for the rule of law, Musharraf is now moving to institutionalize repression by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, particularly, the military’s feared Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan to restore its legitimate judiciary headed by Chief Justice Chaudhry and to work toward meeting internationally accepted fair trial standards.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the release of all detainees and an immediate return to constitutional rule in Pakistan.