ISLAMABAD: The government and opposition parties could not narrow down their differences on the revival of military courts when they met on Friday to pore over the 25th constitutional amendment draft.
There were two contentious points: specification of ‘religious terrorism’, and tenure of military courts. Notwithstanding, the encouraging thing about Friday’s session of the Speaker Ayaz Sadiq-led parliamentary committee was participation of the PPP, which had boycotted the earlier discussion.
Two senior cabinet members — Ishaq Dar and Zahid Hamid — represented the government at the talks. Sources say the opposition parties, PPP, PTI, ANP and MQM, voiced reservations over specification of ‘religious terrorism’ in the draft 25th amendment which the government intends to table in parliament in order to reestablish the military courts.
Three political parties — PPP, PTI and JUI-F — also opposed a government proposal seeking re-establishment of the military courts for three years. Imran Khan’s PTI agreed to a two-year term for the military courts, while the PPP and JUI-F pushed for 1.5 years.
The military courts had been established for two years through a constitutional amendment under the National Action Plan to try hardcore terrorists. As many as 274 cases had been referred to these courts during their two-year mandated term. One hundred sixty-one terrorists had been awarded the death penalty by the courts. And of them, 12 have been executed thus far. The military courts, however, ceased to exist in January, this year, following the expiry of their tenure.
Syed Naveed Qamar, the PPP’s parliamentary leader in the National Assembly who represented his party in the meeting, reminded the government that the 21st amendment through which the military courts had been established in 2015 mainly dealt with ‘religious terrorism’. However, ‘religious terrorism’, including sectarian extremism, is missing from the draft 25th amendment, he added. The PTI also endorsed Qamar’s view, but the JUI-F insisted terrorism must not be linked with religion.
Similarly, the PPP and MQM also floated the idea of setting up a committee to oversee the functioning of military courts, and the PPP suggested that parliament’s National Security Committee could be reconstituted for this purpose.
After agreeing to disagree on the two contentious matters, the government and opposition decided to meet again on Tuesday (February 28) while referring the matter of the military courts’ tenure to the Zahid Hamid-led subcommittee dealing with the draft 25th amendment. In a subsequent meeting of the subcommittee, the government is said to have agreed to a two-year term for the military courts.
A government source sought to quash the impression that there was an impasse on the revival of the military courts. “All the political parties have agreed in principle on the reestablishment of the military courts. Differences are not on the motives but on the methodology which can be resolved,” the source added.
On the issue of ‘religious terrorism’, he said the government would extend all-out assurance to the political parties that the military courts would mainly be mandated to try hardcore terrorists involved in religious terrorism, including sectarianism. “We proposed a three-year term, but they [opposition] agreed on a 1.5 year. We’ll probably end up at something in-between — like two years. Not a bad deal,” he added.
The PPP’s demand for reconstitution of the National Security Committee of parliament is more of a bargaining chip, according to an insider. “The real issue is religious terrorism. Other demands are a ruse to keep the government on defensive position,” he said.
Sources in the PPP say the party leadership is concerned over an agreement between the PML-N and JUI-F that allowed the removal of the term ‘religious terrorism’ from the draft 25th amendment. The government’s move, they say, was aimed at winning the support of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s party on the military courts.
Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Naveed Qamar hinted that his party would lend support on given issues if the government ‘convinced’ his party and address its reservations. “The final decision rests with the party leadership. With hesitation and reluctance, we had accepted the military courts when the 21st amendment was passed two years ago. We’ll see what we can do now.”
The JUI-F chief was surprised at the PPP stance. “It is not appropriate to link terrorism with religion. Even when the 21st amendment had been passed, we opposed specifying ‘religious terrorism’,” he added. The politic-religious leader said his party would support the 25th amendment if all other parties supported it.
The JUI-F also believes a conspiracy is being hatched to bring Islamic seminaries (madrassas) at loggerheads with the state. “If this happens and our reservations are not addressed, we will see what to do when the draft 25th amendment bill lands in parliament,” Fazl said.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 25th, 2017.