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DAWN Editorials – 12th May 2016

Military court sentences

THREE more individuals sentenced to death by military courts have had their sentences stayed by the Supreme Court while the appeals are to be heard.

The convicts and their families have raised a disturbingly familiar set of objections: the accused were not allowed to pick their own lawyers at the trial stage; the defence was not allowed access to the state’s evidence against them; and the families only learned of the sentences via press releases.

The latest appeals add to the dozen cases already before the Supreme Court, and for now, there is no indication which way the court is leaning — the stay of execution does not suggest innocence in the eyes of the court, merely that the sentence is irreversible and therefore the appeals process must be completed first.

What is clear is that military courts by their very design cannot ensure due process or a fair trial and that only the Supreme Court stands in the way of the total annihilation of constitutional safeguards of fundamental rights.

Given that the Supreme Court itself sanctified the creation of military courts for terrorism offences under the 21st Amendment, the other tier in the appeals process was not expected to produce favourable results for those seeking enforcement of their rights — the Peshawar High Court, absent any clarification by the Supreme Court about the grounds of a successful appeal, has already turned down most requests to overturn sentences handed down at the trial stage in the military courts.

Nor has the PHC generally seen fit to convert death sentences to lesser punishments. The real concern, then, is that the Supreme Court has not shown any urgency in dealing with the appeals of military court convicts.

In January the sunset clause in the 21st Amendment will mean that, barring an extension by parliament, military courts will cease to exist. It is possible that the edifice of military courts could be dismantled before the first batch of appeals is decided.

A question that is not before the Supreme Court, but ought to be asked of those who pushed for and sanctioned military courts is whether convicting 76 individuals in 18 months has been worth the price of distorting the Constitution and sabotaging the justice system in the country.

The alternative — reforming the criminal justice system — may have been more difficult and involved coordinating across many institutions and tiers of government, but such a project could surely have been achieved in two years, if the institutional will had been found. What the country is left with, instead, is a still-broken criminal justice system and military courts that are soon to expire and that will leave in their wake a host of legal complications to resolve in the appeals stage.

It truly appears to be a case of a terrible original idea compounded by predictable complications.

Ali Gilani’s rescue

SELDOM is the outcome of a counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan of such direct significance to those on this side of the border. However, a joint Afghan-US raid on Tuesday in Paktika province led to Pakistan’s most high-profile kidnap victim, Ali Gilani, being rescued after three years in captivity.

The son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had been abducted by gunmen from an election rally in Multan on May 9, 2013, in an attack that killed his secretary and bodyguard.

According to US officials, the commando raid on Tuesday targeted an Al Qaeda compound in response to intelligence about terrorist activity in the area.

It seems that seven officials of the Fata Development Authority, who had recently been kidnapped from South Waziristan, were also recovered in the same operation. Indications are that the captives were being held by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, possibly the Pakistani Taliban.

As in the case of Shahbaz Taseer, who was recovered two months ago from Kuchlak in Balochistan after four and a half years of being kidnapped, Ali Gilani’s safe return to his family has sparked much jubilation in the country.

As in the earlier instance, details about his captivity or rescue may never come to light. For instance, it is still unclear whether the US-Afghan forces had any idea they were on a rescue mission or whether they stumbled upon the captives in a stroke of good fortune; or for that matter, whether intelligence originating from Pakistan played any role at all in the operation.

Regardless of the fine print, the happy outcome has generated a fair amount of goodwill all around and could offer an opportunity to improve bilateral ties and cooperation between the countries’ security forces.

The reality is that both Pakistan and Afghanistan have a militancy problem; the two also share a border that is already difficult to monitor in many places. That is a boon for terrorist/criminal networks that slip easily back and forth evading capture.

Moreover, deadly attacks carried out in Afghanistan by militants allegedly finding shelter in Pakistan have repeatedly soured the relationship between the two countries, often at crucial times.

The importance of intelligence-sharing by the two countries cannot be overstated. In the aftermath of this episode, one must also spare a thought for the less high-profile victims of kidnapping and enforced disappearances whose stories remain untold, but who are nevertheless equally precious to their families.

Bangladesh execution

WITH Wednesday’s hanging of Motiur Rahman Nizami, the number of prominent opposition leaders executed in Bangladesh has risen to five, four of them belonging to the Jamaat-i-Islami and the fifth one to the main opposition Bangladesh National Party headed by former prime minister Khaleda Zia.

Both the JI chief and BNP leader Salahuddin Chowdhury, who was hanged last year, were former legislators, the latter having been elected six times from Chittagong.

Astonishing as it sounds, Chowdhury was in Karachi in 1971 when the civil war was going on.

The trials were termed flawed by international rights agencies, which said the legal process was far below acceptable international standards.

Yet Prime Minister Hasina Wajed seems indifferent to the criticism of her policies, which smack of political persecution and appear odd at a time when a wave of extremist violence has rocked Bangladesh.

The militant Islamic State group has either secured a foothold in the country or extremists are using its nomenclature to target bloggers, members of minority communities and foreigners.

What has added to the extremists’ power to strike is the Awami League government’s weak response to the terror wave.

Observers of the Bangladesh scene say the government has tried to downplay the crisis, and investigations into the terrorist attacks have been half-hearted for political reasons.

The government denies the involvement of IS or Al Qaeda in acts of terror, has outlawed some militant groups and insists that the violence is home-grown, but the thrust of its propaganda has tried to establish a link between the BNP-JI alliance and IS and Al Qaeda.

It is time Ms Wajed tackled the day’s problems, which are many and pressing. She should know that her country is party to the 1974 tripartite agreement at New Delhi, when Bangladesh agreed not to proceed with any trials because its founder and her father, Mujibur Rahman, had decided to “forget the past and make a fresh start”.

Instead, she should work for national reconciliation and focus on her country’s economic development.

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