Pakistan: Civilians Trials By Military Courts Undermine Human Rights – OpEd


Military court processes are favored for rapid trials and exclusive situations involving military or national defense personnel, but credibility is undermined by a lack of public access to proceedings.

Politics have historically been a focus of Pakistan’s military. The military has regularly intervened in political events in the past, which has frequently led to the destabilization of democratic institutions. The engagement of the military runs counter to the ideas of democratic power transfer and civilian dominance. The military has exercised influence on politics, policy, and national security through military coups and covert operations.

The development of a solid, independent civilian political system has been impeded by this unbalanced power dynamic, impeding the advancement of democracy and accountability. The trial of civilians in military tribunals is an alarming aspect of Pakistan’s human rights predicament. These courts were initially established as a response to an uptick in terrorist activities with the intention of swiftly resolving security issues. But over time, the military tribunals’ jurisdiction has grown to include offences unrelated to terrorism as well as civil disputes that belong in regular courts. This extension calls into doubt the rights of the accused, transparency, and due process.

On May 9, 2023, riots broke out all throughout Pakistan after the authorities detained former prime minister Imran Khan on suspicion of corruption. Supporters of Khan attacked police officers and torched ambulances, police cars, and schools on fire. The military HQ and other buildings in Rawalpindi, as well as the homes of prominent military leaders, were among the targets of the attack. As a result, individuals have been accused of targeting important defense facilities not only in garrison but also across the nation. Following the confrontations, police detained thousands of Tehrik-e-Insaaf supporters on suspicion of rioting, criminal intimidation, and assault on public servants before deciding to turn them over to the Pakistani military for additional proceedings. Everything that happened on May 9, 2023, was certainly illegal; as a result, a serious legal action should be taken by the state against those responsible for attacks on security installations, public properties, national honor, and riots. 

The question of concern is that whether the 9 May 20223 miscreants’ trials under the Army Act of 1952 and the Official Secret Act of 1923 is constitutional? The Army Act of 1952 allows only civilians belonging to terrorist groups to be tried, while the Official Secret Act of 1923 sentences anyone found guilty of disgraceful conduct or property destruction. However, the protesters are still subject to the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, specifically Chapter VI and VII. The Army Act’s trial of civilians violates Article 4 of the Pakistan Constitution, which guarantees individuals’ rights to be treated in accordance with law and due process. Section 24-A of the General Clauses Act, 1897, requires authorities to pass orders with reason and transparent access to courts. It is apparent that military courts in cantonment areas lack public and media access, violating Article 19-A and 10-A of the Constitution and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The International Crisis Group warns that “reliance on military courts will strengthen the military’s control over civilian institutions and further undermine the rule of law in Pakistan.” The fact that military courts report to military leadership, which is in turn controlled by the government, means that they are not independent. Instead of being impartial judges, the judges in these courts are military officers. They may be intimidated or coerced into rendering judgements that the government desires. Thus, the entire procedure turns into a farce. Contrarily, regular civil courts are presided over by impartial, independent judges. Additionally, by utilizing military courts to trial civilians, the government is abusing its powers and giving the military too much power. Democracy and the supremacy of law are undermined by this. Armed combat zones and military personnel should be the only regions under military jurisdiction. It is dictatorial and undemocratic to give them more authority to prosecute citizens who are suspected of political dissent or critiquing government programs.  

Pakistan’s use of military courts has been criticized by the international community for violating human rights laws and democratic principles. Critics argue that these courts undermine fair trial rights and should not be used to try civilians. However, Pakistan has not heeded these calls, leading to a deteriorating human rights situation. The trials of civilians under Army Act 1952 violate Article 4, 10-A, 19-A, and 175 of Pakistan’s Constitution.

Pakistan should learn from the Indonesian model, where President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie limited military involvement in politics by amending the existing laws. For Pakistan to be a democratic country, it should enhance its civilian justice system by improving courts, law enforcement, training, resources, and infrastructure. Addressing human rights concerns and promoting a stable democratic system would help curb military interference in politics. However, any alternative must prioritize fairness, transparency, and respect for human rights for justice.


Asfandiyar works as a journalist based in Islamabad.

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