Khawaja Asif backs military trials of civilian protestors

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Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has defended the government’s decision to try civilians in military courts, calling their alleged attacks on state installations during May 9 protests an “act of rebellion against the state”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Asif said that the arrests of thousands of civilians over protests sparked in the aftermath of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan’s arrest were justified. He alleged that army installations were intentionally targeted.

“These people attacked their [the military’s] offices. They attacked their houses. They attacked their installations, such as air bases,” Asif said in an interview on Wednesday. “They planned it. It was not spontaneous. You must understand the gravity of the offence, the gravity of events which took place.”

Violent protests sparked across the country on May 9 after former premier Imran Khan was arrested from the premises of the federal capital’s high court.

The government later launched a massive crackdown against PTI leaders and workers, and rounded up thousands of people on charges of attacking civil and military installations.

As the crackdown intensified, dozens of PTI leaders – including close confidants of Imran Khan – started jumping ship in what was described by the PTI chief as “forced divorces.”

Later, the country’s civil and military leaders on May 17 endorsed a decision made a day earlier during a meeting of corps commanders to invoke the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 and the Official Secrets Act, 1923 against people involved in the May 9 riots.

On May 20, the federal cabinet also approved the decision to try the rioters under the Army Act and the Official Secrets Act.

However, the government has come under fire as human rights groups have been outraged by the decision to hand over civilians to military courts.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) strongly opposed the use of military laws to try civilians saying that “while those responsible for arson and damaging public and private property during the recent protests should be held to account, they remain entitled to due process”.

When passed in 1952, the Army Act was primarily used to put military personnel on trial before military courts. Later amendments also allowed civilians accused of certain offences to be tried by military courts.

If convicted by a military court, defendants have the right to file an appeal within 40 days before a military court of appeal. If the defendants still think they did not receive a fair trial, they may appeal to the high court in the jurisdiction in which they were tried.

Using this line of argument, the Defence Minister told Al Jazeera that “there is going to be absolute transparency in these cases,” he said. “There are three layers of appeals that go through the army chief, the high court and then the Supreme Court.”

“These people actually challenged the state. If it was against the political government, there was no problem. Criticising and challenging the political government is perfectly fine, but these people singularly chose to target army installations on May 9 and 10,” he stressed.

Asif added that Imran Khan “thinks his adversary is the armed forces of Pakistan and not any political party. If there was an army government or a martial law, you [can] challenge that, but not the institution [itself]”.

Meanwhile, the PTI has opposed the government’s decision and called for an independent investigation into the events instead, maintaining that the miscreants did not belong to the party.

‘Sinisterly designed’

Notably, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, while observing the Youm-e-Takreem Shuhada-e-Pakistan (Martyrs Reverence Day), had also stated that the “tragic incidents” of May 9 were “designed” sinisterly with a “clear build-up to the shameful incident”.

Shehbaz stated that he did not see “the tragic incidents of May 9 as merely a protest that became violent. The designs of those who planned them were actually very sinister”.

He continued that there was a “clear build-up to the shameful incidents, as the whole nation witnessed in utter disbelief and a state of shock how the lust of some people for power made them do what was never done before”.

“By targeting, desecrating and destroying the monuments of Shuhada, and attacking the very symbols of the State, the miscreants attacked the idea and identity of Pakistan and gave the enemies of the country reasons to celebrate,” he wrote.

The prime minister said that the “tragic and heart-rendering events of May 9” were a “wake-up call”.

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