Imran Khan tilts the balance with military courts
Pakistan PM's anti-corruption drive has landed the Sharifs in jail. More politicians could follow.
By Shahab Jafry (Postscript)
Published: Thu 17 Jan 2019, 8:31 PM
Nobody's surprised that Imran Khan's government is looking for an extension for military courts as a central legal pillar in the wider war against terrorism. But the public has always had a very short collective memory. Sure, they see him now as the establishment's (read military's) blue-eyed boy, especially since the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) accused behind-the-scenes powers of engineering its downfall - with the Panama Papers trial - to make way for a more compliant administration.
Yet there was a time, long before the 21st amendment to the constitution green-lighted military courts in January 2015, that Imran even opposed military action against the Pakistani Taleban. Ever wondered why they called him Taleban Khan back in the day? They (insurgents who had killed more than 50,000 people till then) are our own people, Imran pleaded, and they're only misguided. But he changed his mind, like everybody else, when the military put its foot down and ended the government's so-called peace talks with TTP (Tehrik-e -Taliban Pakistan) in June 2014.
But then on December 16, 2014, Pakistan's darkest day, the Taleban attacked the Army Public School (APS) in the northern city of Peshawar, killing more than 150 people of which 134 were children. All political parties immediately united under the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP), which called for intel-sharing among security agencies, formation of a national narrative to counter institutional brain-washing, clamping down on proscribed organisations and so on . It also sanctioned military courts to try hardcore terrorists.
Everybody agreed to the courts, some parties more grudgingly than others, for straight forward reasons. One, there was an urgent need for the people who killed our children to feel the full wrath of the state. If that meant rushing trials through undemocratic military courts, then so be it.
Two, Pakistan's criminal justice system - overloaded, broken down and corrupt to the core - was simply in no position to bear the load of rapid terror trials. Already the backlog goes a good three decades. And anybody knocking on the court's doors for justice, unless they are from society's more privileged sections, must wait decades for any relief; that too if they are lucky and nobody bought off the judge ahead of the verdict.
And three, it was important to rule out the possibility of judges and witnesses feeling threatened by terrorists. For far too long the country's most notorious terrorists, especially ones that publicly took credit for killing hundreds of religious minorities, openly threatened judges and their families during trials. Guess how most of the verdicts went then?
The idea, therefore, was straight forward. Overhaul the courts while military trials swiftly send terrorists to hell. That, precisely, is why the parliamentary sanction came with a 'sunset clause'. The judiciary was given two years to pull its socks up.
But two years later everybody was back to square one, just as widely expected. The APS tragedy united everyone alright and Imran even ended his 14-month agitation out of respect for the fallen children. Then it was back to business as usual. NAP quickly fell out of the national dialogue, there was no intel-sharing, and that crucial national narrative is nowhere to be seen.
Yet the military wanted more time for its courts. And the Nawaz administration took a good three months to roll the extension through Parliament in 2017. Now, another two years later, Imran wants to stretch the sunset clause by two more years. Only this time the politics has changed. He is seen as the military's man, especially by the opposition, so this was more or less expected. Yet he only has a razor-thin majority in the house, so he'll need the opposition to play ball.
That, however, won't be quite as straight forward. His anti-corruption drive, which has already landed the Sharifs in jail with the Bhutto-Zardaris most likely to follow, has caused a logjam in parliament. That is why there's been zero legislation so far. And while some in the opposition are seemingly open to talks, everybody knows that the military courts now depend on a give-and-take of a very political nature. Though most have, in principle, opposed any further extension, who's to know how flexible they can be if the government agrees to push the corruption trials a little lower on the priority list. Plus, there's the added benefit of getting on the good side of the brass for a change.
As for the judiciary, it remains as ineffective as ever. The outgoing chief justice made history by trying to correct all of the country's problems with his suo motto judicial activism - from bad hospitals to low quality water to unclean public cafeterias. But he didn't do much about the two million or so outstanding cases in his own back yard.
And the only thing the judiciary, which is not capable of trying terrorists, is good for is fast-tracking corruption cases against the senior most opposition politicians.
How ironic, then, that the rationale for military courts has changed from the blood of innocent children to the fate of corrupt politicians gracing the National Assembly.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan