Military courts and the criminal justice system – Zeeshan Salahuddin

Image Source: The News

The Pakistani parliament overwhelmingly voted for the reinstatement of military courts last week. This was not unprecedented, nor was it unexpected. The courts were established in a state of national grief, after the atrocious attack on schoolchildren in December 2014. They were created because of the criminal justice system in Pakistan – responsible for providing swift justice – was not providing justice, nor was it swift. The judicial system in Pakistan suffers from three overarching, interconnected and complex problems that, unless solved, will deny the public access to a fair justice system.

The first issue is the police. Barring the remarkable progress in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, police in Pakistan faces the brunt of universal disdain. They are viewed as untrustworthy, corrupt, and inept, and none of these descriptors is necessarily wrong. Police suffer from a historic lack of training, manpower, and equipment. They are frequently used as a private militia or guards by the political elite. Their autonomy is practically non-existent, as their postings and transfers are politically motivated and controlled. Most significantly, this sense of apathy has now crept into generations of police officers and creates problems for them to be relatable to the public.

In fact, the public feels threatened by the police. In a recent conversation with an Australian diplomat, we both accepted that police in both our respective countries made us nervous. But telling was the fact that she felt nervous about what she may have done wrong to be stopped by the police, while I felt nervous about what they might do wrong, or what they will find to unnecessarily harass me. This difference is the foundation of the public’s mistrust of police in Pakistan. With rampant corruption, bribery, and frequent reports of police brutality that even results in custodial deaths, it is no wonder that police in Pakistan are often regarded not as guardians, but as a menace.

Most importantly for the criminal justice system, the police are often blamed by the courts for not collecting enough evidence, or building a strong enough case against the defendant. A large number of culprits are granted initial bail and eventual exoneration because the police have not done the needful.

Second, and inevitably connected to this, are the loopholes in the criminal justice system. Courts have become literal revolving doors for the accused. The court system can be manipulated through a large number of legal loopholes, allowing for those with power, money, influence, or the ability to inflict terror, to roam free. A recent example of a model getting caught red-handed with millions in currency she was smuggling became a national spotlight for months. Eventually, she was released on bail, and very recently, left the country, Instagramming a shot of herself with a victory symbol.

Finally, security for judges, lawyers, prosecutors and witnesses is a major issue. People belonging to all four categories have been executed in Pakistan for taking up a certain case. Even the police themselves come under attack by rogue elements, the very provider of security for said individuals.

The failure of the justice system in Pakistan had necessitated the establishment of military tribunals. The numbers support this argument. At this point in time, an estimated 1.74 million cases are pending in Pakistan’s courts. Criminal cases can take 6-9 years on average, depending on the complexity of the case, and the location where the case was tried. All things considered, the legal system in Pakistan is not the shining beacon of hope and justice it was supposed to be. It is a smouldering wisp of a burnt-out candle that no longer serves the purpose it was intended for.

It is also worth noting that at the time of the creation of the military courts, it was decided that the state would look into and revamp the criminal justice sector in Pakistan, such that these courts are no longer needed. The fact that two years later our representatives have comprehensively voted for military courts’ reinstatement, and the progress on revamping/reforming the criminal justice system is next to none, is a sad, sorry state of affairs for Pakistan. Not only does it weaken the argument against military courts, a national embarrassment that reflects how broken the justice system conveyer belt really is, also hurts Pakistan in the long term.

The militarisation of institutions is nothing new in Pakistan. Be it the criminals of Karachi, the insurgents of Balochistan, the militants in FATA or the gangs of Punjab, the armed forces have repeatedly stepped in where civilian institutions have failed. But the continued militarization of the justice system is a step in the wrong direction, the blame for which rests securely with the ineptitude of the state.


The author serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He can be reached via and on Twitter @zeesalahuddin

Source: Daily Times

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