Pakistan army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, in a detailed briefing on operational preparedness at the Headquarters Central Command Jhelum and Kharyan, on Thursday Jan 12, vowed to uphold Pak Army’s ‘dignity and credibility’ through ‘selfless performance of its role and duties’.
Gen. Bajwa, Pakistan Army’s new Chief, replaced outgoing COAS, Gen. Raheel Sharif, in the last week of Nov 2016. Since then he is visiting different operational and command centers of the army.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) January 12, 2017
Chief of Army Staff Gen. Bajwa gave these remarks while responding to questions raised by army officers during the interactive session. Mainstream English papers, like widely read and quoted paper, The Dawn, often referred to as ‘paper of record on Pakistan’, merely reports that Gen. Bajwa responding to questions from the young officers, called Pakistan Army a “great institution”.
Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), now headed by Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, has also not provided any context for General Bajwa’s remarks.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) January 12, 2017
However, several of Pakistan’s 24/7 tv channels, have quoted sources inside the meeting venue to provide a context for the Army Chief’s comments. And this “interesting context” emerged as the front page lead story on Dawn’s rival, Express Tribune.
Apparently, according to sources quoted by the tv channels, Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa was responding to the questions about the recent statement by Rana Sanaullah, Punjab Law Minister questioning the effectiveness of military courts in dealing with cases of terrorism. Officers also inquired about the status of the official inquiry into what is referred in Pakistan as “Dawn Leaks”.
This political controversy dates back to first week of Oct 2016, when, soon after the Uri Attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, (18th September) Dawn’s reporter, Cyril Almedia, citing unnamed sources in Prime Minister’s House claimed that the civilian leadership had told the military to rein in the Jihadi elements.
Dawn’s story had a clear regional context. Though Indian Govt could not offer any proofs of cross-border involvement, it nevertheless blamed the Uri attacks on Pakistan-based militants. Most people in Pakistan, however, believed that “Uri Attacks” were a false flag. An operation planned by Indian intelligence to divert attention, from the mounting political crisis and human right conditions inside the Indian-controlled Kashmir. Uri attacks also happened just three days before Pakistan was set to raise the Kashmir situation in United Nations General Assembly. In end-September, Prime Minister Modi ordered border raids across LOC into Azad Kashmir, as a retribution. Indian government called these as ‘Surgical strikes” conducted to destroy the terrorist launch sites inside Pakistani controlled territory. Dawn Leaks, coming within a week of Indian border raids, were thus seen inside Pakistan as act of those elements inside the PM House who were trying to support the Indian point of view.
“Dawn Leaks” have been a sour point between Pakistan Army and the govt. of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Though PM forced the then information minister, Pervaiz Rashid, to take responsibility and resign an official inquiry ordered into what really happened, why and how has not reached anywhere. Its generally believed that the inquiry is being placed in a cold storage. But the issue resonates deeply inside the officer corps of Pakistan army. According to tv channels this is what young officers inquired into and responding to this, Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa said that, “Army would not compromise on its dignity and credibility”
Rana Sanaullah questions effectiveness of military courts
The other set of questions to which Army Chief responded, related to the comments of Rana Sanaullah, Law Minister Punjab. Rana had expressed his dissatisfaction over the concept and performance of army courts that were set up early 2015 after amendment in the constitution. But, he did an about-turn on his statement the next day by stating that, military courts had actually relieved the judicial system of Pakistan. His earlier comments came when country’s legislators were discussing a possible extension in the duration of military courts.
Govt should clarify why it wants to extend military courts: Opposition https://t.co/PAoS0v3O6f
— The Express Tribune (@etribune) January 11, 2017
These courts were set up, in 2015, to try perpetrators of terrorism, under a sun set clause of two years, under which they lapsed on Jan 7, 2017. Govt is now mulling over their extension, however the extension is being strongly criticized by opposition parties like PPP and PTI. Army has no clear position on the extension of these courts. Most defense analysts point out that these military courts were made ineffective or severely weakened when supreme court, under pressure of human right organizations and legal community ended up providing right of appeal to high courts and supreme court.
However Rana’s criticism, on Sunday, was followed two days later by the army’s top leadership praising the performance of military courts in prosecuting terrorism cases and their role in complementing the fight against militants.
“[The] forum also appreciated performance of military courts during the prescribed duration which resulted in reduction of terrorism,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) had said in a statement on the corps commanders meeting at the General Headquarters — the first one to be chaired by Gen Qamar Bajwa since assuming the command of the army at the end of November.
The army’s laudatory comments about the military courts came at a time when the political leadership was busy in discussing a possible extension in the tenure of the tribunals through another constitutional amendment.
The government had said on Monday 9 January, that it had begun consultations for introducing a constitution amendment for reviving the military courts for another limited term. This was after they ceased to exist last weekend upon conclusion of their two-year term under the 21st Constitution Amendment.
During their two-year term, the military courts tried 274 terrorism cases, sentencing 161 people to death and awarding varying jail terms to another 116. However given rights of appeal against these decisions, most cases are still pending in the high courts or supreme courts. Only 12 out of 161 awarded death penalty for acts of terrorism have been executed so far.
But law minister Rana Sanaullah’s original comments, last Sunday, were related to both the very concept of the military courts and their effectiveness.
Whether the country needs the continuation of military courts is a political decision. However, what irked the army officers was the second part of Rana’s comment, where he rubbished their performance and created the impression that military courts were given easy cases where evidences were available. He was technically wrong in saying this because courts are not supposed to collect evidences, but to decide on the basis of facts presented by prosecution. And military courts were reluctant in accepting those cases where ordinary criminals charged with murder were prosecuted under Pakistan’s Anti-terrorism Act (ATA). Of the 14 cases sent to the military courts, from Punjab, they accepted only 3 or 4 for trial after scrutiny. This is what Maryam Aurganzeb, Information minister clarified and Rana had no option but to retract. Though he, like most in civil society and legal community, still maintain that military courts are not the solution.
Rana’s position is supported by Pakistan’s Human rights activists who fear that due process was not followed during the trials of terrorism suspects by the military courts. The allegation was rejected by the army in one of the earlier statements announcing the completion of the constitutionally mandated period. Defense analysts – like Gen. Amjad Shoaib – strongly counter these arguments of human right activists by pointing out that these ‘military courts’ try the army jawans and officers and are we arguing in Pakistan that the human rights of the army officers are any less than those charged with terrorism? He also adds that the sense of justice and fair play, to its men and officers, is what sustains Pakistan army as a strong modern institution trusted by its own formations and the public at large.
Why military courts are popular?
Military courts have been a popular demand, even outside the military, since Pakistan’s judicial system is known for its failure to convict most criminals. Country has one of the lowest conviction rates any where in the world, less than 5%. Cases remain stuck in courts for years before disappearing or becoming irrelevant.
With hardened militants, enjoying support from gangs outside, courts were literally paralyzed. Military courts, held away in safe places away from media and public glare were considered a solution. However these courts, relying on facts presented by prosecution, circumstantial evidences and confessions, did not offer the detailed rights available to defendants in civilian courts. But these arguments of the human right activists become weak when its considered that under pressure from the same organizations two-step rights of appeal to high courts and supreme courts were granted against the decisions of these military courts making them indistinguishable from any other ‘speedy courts’ that can be set up under any jurisdiction.
The overall position, of resistance towards the military courts, then demands that the government, political institutions, civil society organizations and legal community should come up with a solution to reform the normal courts; nothing is visible on this front – civilian courts stand exactly at the same level of function or dysfunction where they were two years ago in January of 2015.
The questions raised by the young army officers on the issues of “Dawn Leaks” and “Military Courts”, in an open meeting, represent those vertical pressures which Pakistani military chiefs start to face from within their large organization and to which they have to respond. Irony is that Pakistani military is more open and democratic than country’s political parties and has a long established tradition of raising questions, in open darters, to its top leadership. Ministers of the government and members of political parties on the other hand cannot openly ask questions to their leadership. This represents Pakistan’s unending political paradox.
Will Nawaz government, suspected by many of masterminding the Dawn leaks, end up investigating the security breech? Will the new military leadership pressurize the government on this end? All this remains to be seen.