Islamabad : The Pakistani media has strongly condemned President Pervez Musharraf’s amendment of the army act that grants powers to try civilians in military courts.
“Military courts for civilians are abominable,” The Daily Times said in its editorial Monday.
Musharraf, who imposed a state of emergency in Pakistan Nov 3, amended the Army Act 1952, which earlier only had provisions for the army to try civilians if they were accessory to any criminal act committed by an employee of the army.
According to the amendment, military officers have been given the powers to try sedition, treason, keeping unlicensed weapons and attack on the army personnel.
“Now the amendment enlarges this power to include all the crimes that can be interpreted as being against the ‘security of Pakistan’ – a term that is so loose that it can be taken to mean whatever the regime wants it to mean,” The Daily Times said.
“Even more alarmingly, there is a new provision covering the ‘giving of statements conducive to public mischief’ – another term that can be applied whimsically.”
According to the newspaper while an appeal would still lie with the higher judiciary, “these newly empowered military courts are aimed at enabling the government to avoid civil adjudication and its more stringent requirements of evidence and due process of law”.
The Supreme Court will no longer be able to proceed after being informed that the military authorities had taken cognisance of the crimes allegedly committed by the people picked up by the intelligence agencies, according to the daily.
“The habeas corpus provisions could now be avoided by simply notifying the arrests under the army act.”
There are many stated and hidden reasons for expanding the ambit of the act, the daily said.
The special anti-terrorism courts, which tried security and terrorism cases, have proved ineffective in dealing with the rising graph of anti-state crimes, according to the Daily Times.
“Their (terrorists) sentences were either reduced or thrown out on appeal at the higher judicial level for lack of evidence,” said the daily, while referring to a verdict pronounced in favour of “the terrorists” in the case of Lal Masjid in Islamabad.
“The case in point is the Supreme Court verdict in favour of the terrorists in the case of Lal Masjid, and this could be one of the causes why the army act has been beefed up,” the daily maintained.
The ordinance that amends the army act makes the new provisions retroactive to 2003.
“The courts martial under the army act have their own rules. People picked up under the dragnet of the amended act will not be able to demand the registration of an FIR with the police. Once picked up, it will become more difficult to find out where the ‘disappeared’ person has gone,” the daily speculated.
“While there is a provision for defence of the arrested person once he has been put on trial, the army officer acting as judge has his own rules to follow. And judging by the military courts’ performance under General Zia (ul Haq) when the punishments were summary and tough, we may expect that conditions under which the military courts of General Musharraf will function will not be much different from the military courts of Zia,” feared the daily times.
“These laws are abominable. General Musharraf has come a long way from when he was a defender of the media and civil rights to when he is the chief prosecutor of them in the country. If and when the transfer of power takes place, the political parties must not forget to remove these from the statute books.”
According to a report in the daily Dawn, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chairperson Asma Jahangir has also condemned the amendments.
The detained human rights activist and eminent lawyer in an e-mail message said that the promulgation of the amendments was ‘alarming’ and gave wide powers to military courts.
Jahangir said that amendments made under the act had blatantly violated all norms of human rights and the constitution of Pakistan.
In order to settle scores with lawyers, human rights activists and defiant journalists, the law had been given effect from January 2003, she said.
“This has also allowed the government to legitimise all illegal acts of disappearances carried out by intelligence agencies with impunity,” Jahangir said.