Secret Courts Fight Shows Rare Tussle With Pakistan’s Army

  • Pakistan politicians seen testing new army chief General Bajwa
  • Courts have ordered hangings of more than 100 terror suspects

Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Photographer: SS Mirza/AFP via Getty Images

After army hearings ordered the execution of more than 100 terrorism suspects in the past two years, some Pakistani politicians are pushing back against the opaque courts in a rare sign of backbone against the nation’s powerful military.

The courts were set up about a month after Pakistani Taliban massacred more than 100 school children in December 2014. The military’s closed door proceedings have drawn ire from human rights organizations and admiration for swift rulings in a country where civilian courts are clogged. Investors have also noted Pakistan’s improved security since a militant crackdown.

However, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, appointed in November, is facing off emboldened politicians in a bid to continue the secret courts. As their mandate expired earlier this month, the government has yet to commit to an extension and opposition politicians openly object to it. The tussle will likely increase strains between the two branches of power in the nuclear-armed nation, which the military has ruled for much of Pakistan’s history, dominates foreign relations and controls large chunks of the economy.

“They are on a course of pushing their limits, testing the water,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, vice chancellor at the University of Sargodha. “They know the new army chief needs time to assert himself.”

Security Impact

Businesses will also keenly watch for any impact on security in an economy that is growing by about 5 percent annually and has seen increased investment as attacks decline. Since 2014, fatalities in Pakistan from violence have dropped 66 percent to 2,610 last year, according to the Islamabad-based Center For Research and Security Studies.

“That’s why our number of visitors has increased substantially and so have activities,” said M. Abdul Aleem, chief executive officer of the Karachi-based Overseas Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents 195 foreign companies.

Foreign direct investment is also up 10 percent to $1.1 billion in the six months through December, according to the central bank. S&P Global Ratings Ltd. raised Pakistan’s credit rating in October in part on improved domestic security.

The military said earlier this month the courts have “yielded positive effects” and Bajwa’s predecessor, retired General Raheel Sharif, told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that they had stopped insurgents.

‘Hardcore Terrorists’

“Freedom of speech and other things like human rights and all, they are limitations and they are difficult to handle when you are dealing with hardcore terrorists,” said Raheel Sharif, no relation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “Hardcore terrorists who have been holding heads of two of my soldiers, one in each hand, and playing football with the third one.” There is a need to “create deterrents,” he said.

Yet the biggest opposition parties, including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, have objected to their reinstatement. Officials from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League have said they won’t extend the army’s remit without a political consensus.

Parliamentary leaders and opposition parties are due to meet and decide the fate of the military courts on Jan. 31.

“Ideally the country cannot depend on this parallel mechanism,” said Shazia Atta Marri, a PPP member of the National Assembly. We “would like to see necessary reforms in the judicial system to ensure strengthening of the justice system, but the government has failed to show any effort in that regard.”

Once disposed in 1999 by a coup in an earlier stint in power, Nawaz Sharif will be hesitant to overtly cross the military as he plans for his re-election bid next year. It’s unclear what his party plans.

‘Fish Market’

On Jan. 3 Attorney General Ashtar Ausaf said in an interview that Nawaz Sharif is working to enable civil courts to take up terrorism trials after the mandate’s expiry. In an interview last week, PML Senator Nehal Hashmi said the party did want an extension to resolve the more than 100 pending cases and appeals. Only 12 hangings have gone ahead.

“The government does not appear to be very interested or they would not have raised the issue after expiry,” said Mazhar Abbas, a political analyst in Karachi.

If the military hearings are dropped, there are doubts about the readiness of the civilian courts in trying terrorism cases. The civil court backlog is a “serious problem” and the government is attempting to bring in new technology to speed up the legal process, Ausaf said.

In its latest annual report, Pakistan’s Supreme Court said it is dealing with cases stretching back nearly 30 years and as of May 2014 more than 20,000 were pending. As a result, Pakistanis often resort to alternatives outside the legal system, including settlements and tribal hearings.

“Forget about luxurious things like protection and quick judgment,” said Syed Qalb-i-Hasan, former vice chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council. “Go and see the courtrooms. It’s like a fish market, judges are swamped with cases.”

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