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PTI,PPP opposing Military courts

31 December, 2014

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ISLAMABAD: Confronted with stiff opposition from different quarters to the decision to establish military courts, the two main opposition parties, which had earlier endorsed the move, now appear to be having second thoughts to the commitments they had made during the all parties conference (APC) on Dec 24.

There were a few murmurs earlier and strong remarks by PPP leader Raza Rabbani in the Senate on Tuesday, but the whispers have now turned into an outburst.

PPP stalwart and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Aitzaz Ahsan categorically stated that he had opposed the idea of amending the constitution for establishing military courts, which were mentioned in the document made public after the APC.

“We can still achieve the mandate of the Dec 24 APC through a simple amendment to the law, instead of amending the constitution,” he said while talking to reporters outside the Parliament House.

“This will also help keep the constitution alive without curbing the fundamental rights available to the citizens in the constitution or changing its basic features,” he said.

Legal experts were of the opinion that the establishment of military courts would require a constitutional amendment because the Supreme Court had in the past struck them down on the grounds that these violated the constitution.

Mr Ahsan's statement seems to suggest that the PPP is not willing to support such courts unconditionally, and especially when it requires an amendment to the constitution.

The PPP leader said he was forced to make this suggestion when he heard that the government had called a session of the National Assembly on Jan 1 to introduce an amendment bill on the matter. He said he had suggested to the parliamentary committee headed by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar that the parties could still meet their Dec 24 commitments without amending the constitution.

Mr Ahsan said he and others had rejected the proposed amendment presented by Attorney General Salman Aslam Butt and instead suggested a simple amendment to the relevant law which would allow constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights to remain untouched.

Senior PTI leader and MNA Dr Arif Alvi said that his party had a detailed in-house deliberation on the issue of military courts.

The meeting presided over by PTI chief Imran Khan was also attended by Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Hamid Khan, who is the party's legal wizard.

Dr Alvi claimed that the meeting unanimously agreed that the constitution should not be touched. He said that the meeting decided that the party would suggest an amending to the Pakistan Army Act, allowing the military to try people found involved in religious extremism and sectarian attacks.

“This expansion in the jurisdiction of the act will also be for two years. More importantly, the PTI believes that the provision to challenge a verdict of the military courts in the Supreme Court should also remain intact to provide a free and fair trial to the accused,” Dr Alvi said.

At present the army act limits the military's jurisdiction over civilians to specific cases.

When asked about the PTI's Dec 24 commitment to the government for setting up military courts, Dr Alvi insisted that his party had only agreed to speedy trials of terror suspects within the existing constitutional framework.

“The PTI will not support any amendment which is against the basic framework of the constitution and in violation of the Supreme Court judgments,” he said, adding that the government would have to develop consensus in this regard with other political parties.

The PPP's view was more difficult to discern despite Aitzaz Ahsan's statement. While Mr Ahsan was not willing to share details, Farhatullah Babar did not agree that the PPP was rethinking its earlier stance.

Senator Babar, who is spokesman for PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, also expressed reservations over the military courts, but hastened to add that he did so in his personal capacity and that the party was waiting for the draft legislation.

“I don't think parliament will allow courts manned by military officers with poor standards of evidence and requirement of witnesses associated with these courts,” he said.

“An independent judiciary is a basic element of the structure of constitution. I don't think this basic structure can be allowed to be altered,” he added.

Although he refused to comment further, Dawn has learnt that the PPP is seriously debating the issue and there are reservations within the party over issue of military courts.

It can be conjectured that this internal debate has led to Mr Ahsan's rather public statement.

However, if the suggestions made by the PPP and the PTI are heeded and the constitution is left untouched, the fate of military courts appears unclear.

After all, the Supreme Court had already set aside a similar law introduced by the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999 on a petition moved by Sheikh Liaquat Hussain. The government had established the special military courts in Sindh.

If the courts are established by an ordinary act of law, they are bound to be challenged in the court and chances are that they will face the same fate as they faced previously.

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