Islamabad, Pakistan – A leading rights group has urged Pakistan not to try civilians in military courts, reminding the government that the practice violates the country’s obligations under international law.
Pakistan plans to try in army courts dozens of its citizens accused of attacking military installations during protests this month after the dramatic arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said international human rights standards provide “no basis for Pakistani authorities to try these cases in military courts, especially as the civilian courts are functioning”.
“The Pakistani government has a responsibility to prosecute those committing violence, but only in independent and impartial civilian courts,” said Patricia Gossman, HRW’s associate Asia director.
“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 said.
The HRW released its statement shortly after Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said Khan could also face trial in a military court for “masterminding” the attacks on the army during the deadly protests on May 9 and May 10, which included arson at the residence of a top military commander in Lahore.
“Absolutely, why shouldn’t he?” Sanaullah said when Dawn News asked him if the opposition leader would face a military court.
“The plan that he made to target the military installations and then had it executed, in my understanding, absolutely is a case of a military court,” the minister said while appearing on a talk show hosted by the Pakistani news broadcaster on Tuesday.
“He carried it all out. He is the architect of all this discord,” Sanaullah charged, adding that the government has the evidence to back up the allegation.
The political crisis in Pakistan that started last year when Khan was removed from power in a no-confidence vote in parliament has worsened in recent months with the former prime minister demanding snap elections and the government rejecting early polls.
The government has also brought more than 100 cases against Khan, who calls it a political conspiracy by the government and the military to stop him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party from contesting the national elections due later this year.
Thousands of PTI supporters, including well-known journalists, have been arrested this month as part of a nationwide government crackdown, and dozens of its leaders, including former federal ministers, have quit the party.
The government first said it would try all those arrested in military courts, triggering outrage from the PTI and rights groups. Later, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said only those who are accused of attacking army properties would face such trials under the Army Act and Official Secrets Act.
At least 45 Pakistani nationals have so far been handed over to the powerful military for trial.
The HRW in its statement criticised the government’s decision and demanded the immediate release of those arrested merely for their political affiliation.
“Pakistan’s military court judges are serving officials and are not independent from the government,” the rights body 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.”