Uncharted Territory: Military’s Decision to Try Arsonists Raises Concerns

In an unsurprising turn of events, the decision by the military’s top brass to try arsonists under the Pakistan Army Act (PAA) has ignited a wave of controversy. This move, which follows the arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan, has not only drawn scrutiny from legal experts questioning the military’s authority to try civilians for arson, but it has also faced dissent from the ruling coalition.

What do the Politicians Have to Say?

Speaking in the National Assembly, Mohsin Dawar, an independent Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from North Waziristan, voiced his strong opposition to the trial of civilians under the PAA and the Official Secrets Act. He labeled it as a “dangerous move” that could set a precedent with far-reaching implications for all political parties in the future. While the decision may bring temporary benefits to some, undoing it would prove difficult, he warned.

The National Party (NP), a component of the ruling alliance, has also voiced its opposition to the trial of civilians through military courts. Additionally, the NP criticized the fresh deployment of the army in Balochistan and ex-Fata districts. Senator Tahir Bizenjo of the NP stated that an existing criminal justice system is in place to handle arson cases, making invocation of the Army Act unnecessary. He further expressed concerns that applying this law against certain political parties could later be used to suppress dissenting voices among other politicians and journalists.

What the Legal Experts are Saying?

Even some former Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs) of the military’s legal wing have questioned the applicability of the PAA to civilians. Retired Brigadier Wasaf Khan Niazi explained that the PAA only empowers the military to try civilians for espionage charges. Citing Section 2 of the PAA, he clarified that it pertains to individuals accused of seducing or attempting to seduce any person subject to the act from their duty or allegiance to the government. The section also covers offenses related to defense works, military establishments, or naval, military, or air force affairs.

What the Pakistan Army Act Says?

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, the parliament passed an amendment allowing the trial of civilians in military courts to expedite the judicial process. The amendment targeted terrorists misusing religion or a sect, engaging in armed rebellion against Pakistan, attacking the armed forces or law enforcement agencies, or targeting civil or military installations. However, this provision had a sunset clause, causing the law to lapse in 2019 after four years of enforcement.

Challenges and Concerns

Anonymous sources, including a former judge of the Supreme Court, suggested that the only way this would be possible is if the government decided to amend the PAA. While there have been instances of civilians being tried in military courts, the government must address this legal aspect. It is important to note that although the military distanced itself from the arrest of the PTI chairman, violent incidents unfolded across various cities, with key buildings, particularly those associated with the army, being stormed. However, regardless of the facts, nothing gives any institution the right to overstep its authority, especially regarding the law and the question of justice.

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