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Pakistan: Lawyers Condemn Use Of Military In Terrorism Court Panels

  • Ron Synovitz

The military government in Islamabad has passed an ordinance that allows it to appoint high-ranking military officers to special courts for terrorism trials. The ordinance also allows the government to appoint Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agents to the teams providing trial evidence. From Islamabad, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the new law and the chorus of complaints it has raised within Pakistan's legal community.

Islamabad, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Lawyers in Pakistan are protesting an ordinance by President Pervez Musharraf that calls for military officers to essentially serve as judges in trials against alleged terrorists.

The ordinance, which took effect on 31 January, dissolved the system of antiterrorism courts that had existed in Pakistan since 1997. It calls for those courts to be replaced by three-member panels that include two civilian judges and a military officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel or higher.

The two civilian judges are to be appointed jointly by Musharraf's military government and the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. Military officers on the panels are to be appointed solely by the government.

Lawyers' organizations across Pakistan staged protests during the weekend and issued statements condemning the ordinance as an attempt to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. They are calling for its immediate repeal.

Hamid Khan, president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association, says it is unconstitutional for civilians to be tried either by a military court or by any court that includes the participation of military personnel. He cited a previous Supreme Court ruling as a legal precedent to support his argument.

The Pakistan and Punjab Bar councils have called for lawyers to strike. Members of the Punjab Bar Council say the ordinance will paralyze Pakistan's judicial system.

On 2 February, in an emergency meeting of the District Bar Association in Gujranwala, lawyers passed a unanimous resolution pledging that none of its members would appear before the new panels. Those lawyers also said they would start wearing black armbands in court today as a sign of their opposition to military officers on the antiterrorism courts.

Government officials in Islamabad say the changes are necessary because the previous antiterrorism courts had not performed satisfactorily. They also argue that the inclusion of military officers on the panels will give a greater sense of security to witnesses. But Pakistani lawyers are challenging that claim.

The Chief Justices Committee also has opposed the ordinance. It released what it said is a list of the government's failures to support the previous antiterrorism court system.

Under the ordinance, the new antiterrorism courts will have jurisdiction in cases involving kidnapping for ransom, hostage-taking, or hijacking -- as well as inciting religious, ethnic, or sectarian hatred. It also says the three-member panels will hear cases involving those accused of training others for acts of terrorism. Trials can be held in jails or other containment areas.

The new antiterrorism courts have the power to issue the full range of sentences available under Pakistani laws -- including the death penalty. Any rulings require support from at least two of the three panel members.

Another significant provision in the new ordinance is that all pending cases before the previous antiterrorism courts will be transferred to the three-member panels.

That includes trials against those arrested after Islamabad came under international pressure to crack down on the groups that India accuses of orchestrating a series of recent attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir -- as well as the mid-December bombing of the Indian parliament in New Delhi that killed 14 people

The ordinance also gives Islamabad's military government the power to appoint agents from Pakistan's intelligence service -- the ISI -- to the investigation teams that gather the evidence for terrorism trials.

Officials in New Delhi say it is a conflict of interest for ISI agents to have a role in terrorism investigations. India has accused the ISI of being directly involved in terrorism by allegedly supporting groups that orchestrated the attack on the Indian parliament as well as attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The Indian government alleges that Islamabad's military government is using terrorism as an instrument of state policy in order to achieve its stated goal of gaining control over the disputed Muslim-dominated province of Kashmir.

Islamabad denies these allegations. It has responded by accusing India of involvement in recent terrorist attacks in order to discredit Islamabad -- including the kidnapping in Pakistan in January of "The Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl.

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