Military Courts: Justifications Don’t Add Up

Gen Raheel Sharif during a meeting with parliamentary leaders

Making decisions in emotion is never a good idea. Our reasoning is distracted and clouded with our feelings. Think of the boy who chooses to run off with a girl that he thinks he is in love with only to realise once the passion had cooled that they were not the ‘soul mates’ as he had thought. Or the husband who acts out a jealous rage only to learn that what his wife was hiding was not an affair but a secret gift she was planning for her beloved. A cooling off period is needed – one that allows a return to reason so that the facts can be investigated objectively and a decision made based in reality and not fear or anger or passion. How could the brutal killing of 141 innocent lives at the hands of terrorists be anything but an emotional event for the nation? And yet I fear that it is in this emotional state that decisions are being made which, under the cooler light of reason, will appear to be made in haste.

The decision to create military courts is no small matter. This is proven by the fact that it requires no less than amending the Constitution. The decision, then, should not be taken lightly. The justifications, however, do not really add up. First, there is the claim that civilian courts cannot try terrorists due to problems of security. Certainly there is some evidence for this. The Pakistan judge who convicted the terrorist assassin Mumtaz Qadri was forced to flee the country in fear for his life, as well as reports that anti-terrorism cases are often acquitted due to intimidation of witnesses, police, and the courts themselves. Therefore, the order of the day is for military courts.

But wait. If the problem is one of security, why doesn’t the military simply provide the necessary security to the existing civilian courts? Why must the military take over the actual role of judiciary instead of simply fulfilling its own role as guarantor of security? This would strengthen the civilian judiciary while also avoiding any suspicion of military overreach.

The other most commonly given justification is that conviction of hardened terrorists requires the use of evidence gained through sensitive intelligence operations. This too sounds convincing enough until one thinks about it for a minute. There is no question that sensitive intelligence operations and procedures must be kept secret, but does that require military courts? Couldn’t civilian anti-terrorism judges be cleared to hold in camera sessions with intelligence officers to review sensitive material? This would also strengthen the credibility of existing courts while demonstrating that the military was truly cooperating and not trying to expand its authority.

Whether or not the brutal attack in Peshawar has finally woken the nation from its slumber only time will tell, but effective means of countering the terrorist threat requires decisions made with calm reason. Military courts may be the fashionable idea of the moment, but under close review, the justifications don’t hold up. Actually, they could even be counter-productive if they are seen as an attempt by the military to expand its authority at the expense of democracy – a feeling that is already starting to emerge.

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