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HRW Urges Pakistan Not to Prosecute Civilians in Military Courts

Global rights watchdog stresses on need to uphold fair trial rights while trying people accused of violence during May 9 riots

by Staff Report

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International rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday urged the Pakistani government to transfer the cases of all civilians facing military trials to the civilian justice system, stating that prosecuting civilians in military courts violates the country’s obligations under international human rights law to ensure the due process and fair trial rights of criminal suspects.

Noting that the Army had thus far been given custody of 33 civilian suspects for trial in military courts for charges ranging from attacking sensitive defense installations to damaging or stealing important government equipment, it stressed that the Pakistan Army Act, 1952, and Official Secrets Act, 1923 only allowed for civilian trials in military courts under “narrowly defined” cases such as inciting mutiny, spying, and taking photographs of “prohibited” places.

“The Pakistani government has a responsibility to prosecute those committing violence, but only in independent and impartial civilian courts,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at HRW. “Pakistan’s military courts, which use secret procedures that deny due process rights, should not be used to prosecute civilians, even for crimes against the military,” she added.

Recalling the May 9 riots triggered by the arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan in the Al-Qadir Trust corruption case, HRW said “many” of the former prime minister’s supporters had attacked police officers and set fire to ambulances, police vehicles, and schools, as well as targeting military buildings and installations. In the aftermath, thousands of PTI leaders, workers and supporters have been detained, with HRW calling for the immediate release of all those arrested merely for their political affiliation.

Acknowledging that the government had said only those charged who attacked restricted military installations would be tried in military courts—with a right of appeal before the high courts and Supreme Court—it emphasized that Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guaranteed everyone the right to a trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. In this regard, it noted, an international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the ICCPR had stated that the “trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.” Additionally, it said, the body had advised to proceed with military trials only when regular civilian courts are unable to undertake the trials.

With civilian courts still functioning, said HRW, international human rights standards did not provide any basis for PTI supporters to be tried in military courts. In the past, no independent monitoring of military trials in Pakistan has been allowed, it said, adding that defendants have often been denied copies of judgments with the evidence and reasoning in the verdicts in their cases.

“Denying people a fair trial is not the answer to Pakistan’s complex security and political challenges,” Gossman said. “Strengthening the civilian courts and upholding the rule of law is the message the Pakistani government should send as an effective and powerful response to violence.”

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