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(New York, March 20, 2017) – The Pakistani government should withdraw its proposal to restore military courts empowered to try civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is introducing a bill to amend the Constitution of Pakistan and the Army Act, 1952 to reinstate and expand the jurisdiction of military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offenses.

A Pakistan Ranger gestures to stop members of the media from taking pictures at an anti-terrorism court in Karachi, Pakistan on March 12, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Following the attack by the Pakistani Taliban on the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 148 people, nearly all children, the Pakistani government created military courts on January 7, 2015, for a two-year period, as part of its 20-point National Action Plan against terrorism. United Nations bodies, human rights organizations, and the political opposition raised serious concerns about trying civilians before military courts, the secrecy of military court trials, and other fair trial issues.

“The Pakistani government has a responsibility to prosecute those committing violent attacks, but secret, rights-violating military courts raise serious questions as to whether justice is being done,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Generating confidence in Pakistan’s criminal justice system and abiding by the rule of law means bringing those responsible for militant attacks before independence and impartial civilian courts.

Pakistan’s military courts are empowered to try individuals who have committed offenses including abduction for ransom, waging war against the state, causing any person injury or death, creating terror or insecurity, and various other offenses. The draft law seeks to expand the jurisdiction of the military courts to individuals who commit, “grave and violent acts against the State.”

In January 2015, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government promised to reform the civilian criminal justice system and presented the military courts as a temporary solution. Since then, the government has not taken any significant measures to reform the judiciary. From January 7, 2015 to January 6, 2017, military courts convicted 274 individuals and handed down 161 death sentences. At least 17 people have been executed after being convicted by a military court.

By claiming that the military courts serve as an “effective deterrent,” the government will continue to deny citizens the right to a fair trial and undermine the role of the civilian courts, Human Rights Watch said. The government has not made public any criteria for the selection of case for the military courts, the location and the times of trials, and the details of the charges against the accused. No independent monitoring of military trials has been allowed. There is no right to appeal military court decisions. Defendants have often been denied the copies of a judgment with the evidence and reasoning.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has reported that defendants facing military tribunals have been allegedly subjected to enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment. These allegations have not been adequately investigated, giving rise to concerns about convictions based on unlawfully obtained confessions. In at least two cases, suspects claiming to be under age 18 at the time of arrest were convicted without the military court providing any special protections due children.

Reinstating military courts would violate Pakistan’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Pakistan ratified in 2010, guarantees everyone the right to timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the covenant, has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.

According to a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, “using military or emergency courts to try civilians in the name of national security, a state of emergency or counter-terrorism … runs counter to all international and regional standards and established case law.” 

“Denying citizens a fair trial is not the silver bullet to solve Pakistan’s complex security challenges,” Adams said. “Strengthening the civilian courts and upholding the rule of law is the message the Pakistani government should send as an effective and powerful response to militant atrocities.”

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