ISLAMABAD: The largest opposition group, the PPP, will become part of the process to extend constitutional cover to the military courts as it has decided to move a separate bill in parliament that will create room for its re-engagement with the government on the issue.
In an official statement issued after its multi-party conference held in Islamabad on Saturday primarily to discuss the military courts, the PPP said it ‘laid bare’ its policy on the courts by declaring opposition to their revival.
“[However] in case of their [the courts] inevitability, the PPP will formulate legislative proposal to ensure minimum standards of human rights and a fair trial of the accused on the one hand and to prevent their misuse for political victimisation,” it said.
The statement said the PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, who was host of the conference, tasked his legal wizard Farooq H Naek to urgently finalise draft legislation for military courts in case their setting up was deemed inevitable by all political parties.
“He also asked opposition leaders – Khursheed Shah and Senator Aitzaz Ahsan – to share the draft legislative proposal with other political parties,” it says. Once the bill is ready, the government will engage with the PPP either before or after it is formally tabled in parliament.
The military courts – formed through the 21st constitutional amendment for speedy trial of ‘jet black’ terrorists after the Dec 2014 massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar – were suspended after completion of their two-year term on January 7.
The government has been pushing for a revival of the courts but the PPP has voiced concerns over the draft bill prepared by the government to provide constitutional cover to the courts for yet another term and boycotted the last two sittings of meeting of parliamentary parties convened by Speaker National Assembly. It had also announced to host an All Parties Conference (APC) on the issue.
However, in the 8th huddle held on February 28 almost all the political parties that have representation in the parliament extended support for extension of military courts for another two years as per the draft of constitutional amendment formulated by the government.
The unexpected agreement between the government and almost all the opposition parties left the PPP alone and fizzled out the importance of the APC the PPP had announced to convene on issue.
The PPP later named its meeting as a multi-party conference and broadened its agenda by including discussion on implementation on the National Action Plan, newly approved Federally Administered Tribal Areas [Fata] reforms package and alleged ethnic profiling of Pakhtuns in Punjab.
The party, however, suffered another setback when two major opposition groups – the PTI and the MQM – declined to attend its multi-party conference.
Leaders of smaller groups like heads and representatives of 13 political parties including Chuadhry Shujaat of the PML Q, Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao of the QWP, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour of the ANP and Sirajul Haq of the JI attended the Saturday’s moot.
Interesting, almost all the parties have publically given their consent to the government’s proposed amendment draft. This left hardly any room for them to support the PPP’s proposal that aimed at formulating a joint stance on military courts.
The Fata reforms package approved by the federal cabinet on March 2 was also discussed in the conference. But the PPP, which calls for an immediate merger of the tribal areas with Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (K-P), failed to garner support for its stance as most political groups agree with the government’s plan for gradual merger of Fata in five years’ time.
Even the JUI-F, which opposes the government’s plan does not share the PPP’s view as it demands a referendum on the issue.
According to the PPP’s statement, Zardari told the participants that the PPP spearheaded Fata reforms and opened the door for changes in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) that was closed for a century.
“[This] allowed political parties to operate freely in the tribal areas by extending the Political Parties Order 2002 to Fata,” it said.
It said delaying the reform implementation for five years betrayed the government’s insincerity and amounted to hoodwinking the tribal people, adding that Zardari demanded immediate implementation of Fata reforms. “We are opposed to any delay on any pretext,” he said.
Farhatullah Babar’s press briefing
Later talking to the media outside Bilawal House, Senator Farhatullah Babar elaborated the party’s reservation on the military courts and said it was inadequate to mention ‘terrorist organisation’ or ‘terrorist group’ in the draft bill.
“These terms require to be explained so as to prevent their misuse,” he said. “For ensuring fair trial as ensured in the Article 10-A of the Constitution, it is necessary to allow the accused to engage a defense council of his choice, the right of appeal and the presence of observers in a military court,” he added.
He said questions have been asked about how ‘jet black’ terrorists have been defined, how many of 161 accused sentenced to death by the military courts were ‘jet black’ terrorists, how many were allowed to engage a lawyer of choice, how many were denied the charge sheet, copy of the judgment and evidence.
Babar said the PPP wanted to know as to how many convicts had been sentenced merely on the basis of a ‘confession’ without supporting evidence and what precaution had been taken to ensure that the said confession were not extracted through torture.
He also asked as to how many of the accused sentenced during the last two years were those who were brought out into the open under the Action in Aid of Civil Power Regulation 2011.
“The setting up of military courts will only deflect attention from the real issues in reforming the criminal justice system and that is one of the reasons why the PPP opposes it,” he said.
He said the very purpose of allowing military courts for only 2 years was to have an opportunity to revisit their working, ask questions and consider how best the shortcomings encountered could be removed. “Leaving the term ‘terror organisation’ undefined or too wide open to interpretation can be problematic,” he said.
Elaborating the party policy on Fata reforms, he said the president as the overlord and lawgiver in Fata and the FCR are two basic pillars of colonial structure but the reform package failed in demolishing these remnants of colonial structures.
“The Rawaj Act, replacing the FCR, has not been made public. It must be brought before the parliament as the first step towards enabling parliament to legislate for Fata if it is to be mainstreamed,” he said.
“With the introduction of Rawaj Act and the ultimate merger of Fata with the K-P, the province will have three sets of laws; one for the districts, another for Pata [Provincially Administered Tribal Areas] and the Rawaj Act for Fata. Multiple laws in multiple areas are never considered a good thing,” he added.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2017.