In a rare move, three officers of the Pakistan Navy are being brought before a military court for their alleged negligence during the attack on a naval airbase in Karachi, navy sources say.
Former PNS Mehran base commander Commodore Raja Tahir and two of his subordinates – one captain and one commander – are to face trial before a court martial. The captain was the squadron leader of the P3C Orion aircraft, two of which were destroyed in the May 22 attack and the commander was in charge of one of the units on the base. Neither man has been identified by name.
(Read: PNS Mehran attack: Vulnerable, embarrassed and targeted)
Sources inside the navy say that the news of the court martial proceedings has inculcated a sense of fear amongst the officer corps, with many officers fearing that they may be brought before the military court as well. Sources add that other names are likely to crop up during the hearings.
A military court operates much like a civilian court, relying on evidence and often expanding the scope of inquiry as the investigation proceeds. The lawyers, judges and the law by which the cases are judged, however, are all very different.
If convicted, the officers could face a censure, a dishonourable discharge from the service (which includes forever forgoing one’s rank and military honours as well as military pensions) or even imprisonment, depending on the nature of charges proven against them. Keeping up with the Navy’s attempts to downplay their investigations into the incident, Navy spokesman Commodore Irfanul Haque refused to divulge details about who was being prosecuted. Haque said that the board of inquiry had presented its recommendations to Naval Chief Admiral Noman Bashir, who then authorised the court martial proceedings.
The Navy’s internal inquiry into the attack is being headed by Rear Admiral Tahseenullah Khan.
While the Navy’s attempts to prosecute those responsible for what is described as a ‘colossal intelligence failure’ are likely to meet with approval, for some, the prosecutions are too timid.
Javed Iqbal, a retired vice admiral, said that the officers being prosecuted are too ‘junior’ and that far too many senior officers – including admirals – were being let off the hook.
“The PNS attack was a colossal intelligence failure that resulted losses to the tunes of billions. But have any senior ranking officials in the intelligence agencies or the Pakistan Navy been investigated?” he asked, adding that most officers are probably breathing a sigh of relief at having not been named.
Nonetheless, Iqbal welcomed the court martial proceedings, saying that it would give a chance to many officers to clear their names. He also cautioned against assuming that those being tried were complicit in the attack.
“It could just be a matter of being blamed for security lapses or the failure to perform certain duties during the attack,” said Iqbal.
The Navy, for its part, has been trying to keep the investigation as quiet as possible. Commodore Tahir was removed from his post as base commander within three days of the attack, though Navy officials had then tried to characterise the move as a ‘routine’ affair.
Within five days of the attack, however, there had been arrests in the case, with security officials arresting a former Pakistan Navy commando Kamran Ahmed Malik and his brother Zaman Malik from Lahore. However, they were released a few weeks later when authorities failed to gather enough evidence to implicate either of them.
The Navy has, in the past, arrested personnel from within its ranks who have been found to be associated with extremist or militant groups. In March 2010, five such men were arrested before they could stage an attack. All five remain in incarceration at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. The men arrested last year were mainly junior commissioned officers and sons of Navy officers.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2011.