It may not be easy for the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to evolve a consensus with the Opposition for the third extension to military courts, under 23rd Constitutional Amendment since 2014, amid rising political temperature with Opposition also looks divided on the issue.
PM has given the task to two of his veteran leaders Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Defence Minister Pervez Khattak to convince the mainstream Opposition parties to agree on two years extension in the prevailing security situation. The military courts term under the abovementioned amendment will expire on March 30. Though, there is still some time for discussing the matters, its advantage and disadvantages.
The PML-N government had also faced similar situation in 2017, when it took almost three months after the expiry of term to get the second extension while the opinion is clearly divided over the need of the military courts.
Some believe that there is still a need as our civil procedure courts are still not strong enough while the other view is that when security situation has shown remarkable improvement and terrorism has been defeated why not go with normal court under ATA. However, the political parties also have to share the burden of their failure for implementing the National Action Plan formulated at the time of military courts in 2014. Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Pervez Khattak’s task has become further difficult as on the one hand the PTI is still short of two third majority required for any constitutional amendment and need Opposition support and on the other government looks in a confrontational mood with the Opposition. So, the government has to bring political temperature down, something missing at the moment.
While one of the two key Opposition parties the PML-N has not taken any firm position in support or against further extension to the military courts, the PPP has already taken a position not to support the amendment.
Senate’s former chairman Raza Rabbani said, “PPP’s central executive committee in its meeting on December 27 last year had taken a decision not to support further extension”.
However, the party is open to discussion, which has somewhat eased the task for two-member committee. So the meeting between government and the PPP on this issue will be most significant as far as further extension to military courts was concerned.
The PTI-PML-N talk on this issue will also not be easy under the prevailing political environment with the fate of former premier Nawaz Sharif would be decided while cases against leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif are also piling up and Railways Minister Sh Rashid is in a confrontational mood with SS.
While the PTI sources said the committee will meet Shahbaz and other senior PML-N leaders on this specific agenda and expected a positive response. The PML-N sources said the party high command will decide but said they want to know what measures government has taken for the implementation of National Action Plan.
Sources said the PML-N may not take a hardline on the issue but may not also agree without seeking certain firm assurances. So there is a possibility of a compromise between the government and Opposition as to what extent military courts will be allowed and secondly the action on the NAP. Sources said a compromise formula can also be reached while giving extension but it all depends on the mood of the ruling party in particular. The toughest task which the two-member committee can face on the issue would be to convince the religious parties like the JI and particularly the JUI-F which are now against any further extension to the military courts.
Moreover, the country’s law and order and security situation had shown remarkable improvement in the last five years and the authorities themselves claimed 85 percent success in combating terrorism with areas like North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Swat and Karachi cleared and situation also improving in Balochistan. They believe the presence of military courts could help in completely eliminating terrorism.
The counter argument from the civil society and human rights activists is that if the situation has shown so much improvement which they agreed it has then why we need military courts.
Pakistan has a long history of fighting against terrorism as in the post 9/11 scenario and after the US-led coalition attack on Afghanistan, over 70,000 Pakistanis have died in suicide attacks and target killings. During all these years, many outlawed and terrorist groups got active and challenged the State of Pakistan.
It has come a long way in defeating terrorism with countless sacrifices but it is also time for the nation to look beyond extraordinary measures. It is time to strengthen our courts, legal system so that temporary arrangements should not become permanent solution. Why we are still far from improving police and courts.
Even prior to 9/11, the rising tide of terrorism led to the consensus among political parties over Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, under which the trial has to be completed within seven days. Unfortunately, the successive governments failed to evolve a strategy to confront terrorist groups with full force till 2008.
The biggest political loss of rising terrorism was the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007.
Three key political parties became the prime target of attack during 2013 elections and practically kept out due to attacks on their leaders and rallies. They were the PPP, the ANP and the MQM, as they were too vocal against the alleged terrorist groups. While some parties showed soft corner for extremist groups and called for negotiations, which did take place in 2013, led by the PML-N government. But the talks failed and operation was launched in full force.
December 16, 2014, was the turning point in our resolve to defeat terrorism when 150 children of Army Public School in Peshawar were massacred inside the school in one of the most horrifying incidents in the recent history.
It was the time when the then government and Opposition were not on one page, both on political front as well as on anti-terror narrative. Imran Khan and religious parties were against military operation in North Waziristan,which was considered as ‘hideout’ of Taliban and other outlawed groups.
The massacre of schoolchildren united the nation. The government and Opposition unanimously decided to set up military courts and passed 23rd Constitutional Amendment when terrorism was at its peak.
Despite the resolve to collectively fight against terrorism it was not an easy decision for political parties to have military courts in a democratic setup. But they agreed on the pretext that world over extraordinary situation required extraordinary measures.
Thus the amendment allowed setting up of military courts for two years, but also allowed a convict right to appeal in the Supreme Court. The MCs were given an extension in 2017 for another two years term and now the issue is under discussion as its term expires on March 30.
The government has a task ahead and it is important that the matter should come up under serious discussion in both Houses of the Parliament and the nation and political parties should not stand divided whether they decide in favour of extending two years term to military courts or go for an alternate solution.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang