In a rare convergence of views, conservative religious political parties and mainstream liberals in Pakistan seem to agree it is a terrible idea to allow special military courts to try suspected terrorists. But they think so for different reasons, highlighting that once again Pakistan is both polarized and confused about how to respond to terrorism.
Last Tuesday, the National Assembly and the Senate unanimously adopted (with abstentions but no votes against) the 21st amendment to the Constitution: For two years, military courts will have authority to adjudicate cases involving civilians suspected of links to terrorist organizations. The president approved the law the next day.
This is the first major initiative the government has pushed through since the new National Action Plan to counter terrorism was drawn up last month. After the Pakistani Taliban’s rampage on an army-run school in Peshawar on Dec. 16, the government’s immediate, and vengeful, response was to lift a moratorium on the death penalty. But then it put forward a comprehensive program that goes well beyond the usual antiterrorist military operations. Among other measures, the National Action Plan calls for cracking down on hate speech and attacks on religious minorities and for regulating Islamic seminaries.
Both the public and parties across the political spectrum have hailed the plan for its holistic approach. Even the opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., which has led antigovernment protests for months and is generally reluctant to condemn Islamists, came out in support of the government’s new counterterrorism strategy.
But what did the government do last week by passing the constitutional amendment? Instead of revamping the criminal justice system, as the new action plan called for, it cited the failings of civilian courts, such as backlogs and corruption, to increase the remit of military courts: In other words, it ceded yet more control to an armed services that already dominates security and foreign policy making. And with that, it crushed hopes that Pakistan — which has spent half of its history under martial law — was undergoing a democratic transition after the May 2013 election, the first in which power was transferred from one civilian government to another through the ballot box.
Last week’s amendment to the Constitution is a step backward; civilian courts had been enjoying unprecedented independence in recent years, after a long history of operating at the military’s behest and on occasion providing it legal cover for unconstitutional takeovers. The move also increases the risk of human rights violations against terrorist suspects since the special military courts’ decisions will not be subject to appeal.
Like other progressive Pakistanis, I was even more dismayed to realize that political parties with purportedly liberal agendas supported the amendment, and despite understanding it would be a setback for democracy. Members of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party refused to vote for the law on Monday, Jan. 5, because that was the birthday of the party’s founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister and president of Pakistan who is seen as an icon of democracy. They just voted for it the next day. One P.P.P. leader said he had done so against his conscience. Another called the amendment a “bitter pill” that was required to save the country.
Some parties abstained, such as the right-wing religious groups Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. But this was not in the interest of democracy; it was because the amendment applies to “any terrorist group, armed group, wing and militia or their members using name of religion or a sect.” These religious parties, which are accused of maintaining links with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, fear that the new law will mean more security crackdowns on religious groups and seminaries.
The already confused and confusing debate about extremism in Pakistan has just become even more fraught. In the name of keeping the military out of civilian affairs, Pakistani liberals now find themselves having to defend a criminal justice system they have been criticizing for being sympathetic to extremist groups. (In the past Pakistani lawyers have feted the assassin of a politician critical of anti-blasphemy laws, and banned the sale at bar association canteens of drinks made at factories owned by Ahmadi Muslims, a sect they consider heretical.) And conservative religious political parties are having to take a stance against the military, even though historically they have enjoyed its patronage and formed governments with its backing as part of a strategy to sideline secular political parties.
Yet the greatest contradiction of all is that so many parliamentarians — including 247 members of the National Assembly — would vote to empower the military when many of them distrust it. Journalists and politicians, including the former head of P.T.I., believe the military may have orchestrated the antigovernment protests last year in the hope of triggering early elections. But now some of these politicians appear to be kowtowing to the army, presumably so they can complete their terms in office.
They seem to think they must sacrifice democracy in order to save it. But how soon will there be too little of it left to save?
Huma Yusuf is the Pakistan analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy, and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.