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As Pakistan Turns Courts Over To Military, Some Fear Revival Of Army's Power


There is an intense legal battle going on in Pakistan. The issue is the government's decision to use military courts to try terrorism cases. That decision came after an attack in December that killed 150 people, most of them schoolboys. Some people in Pakistan disagree with the government's decision. The reason for this is the country's history with military rule. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Lahore.

SHAHIDA JABEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Shahida Jabeen is sitting in her cramped and dimly lit apartment, flipping through old family photos. They're of her brother Usman's funeral. You can see his very young, pale face. The rest of Usman's body is covered by a shroud and a crimson sea of rose petals. Jabeen remembers the strange mark on his neck left by the hangman's noose.

JABEEN: (Through interpreter) There was only a small mark - a red one, as if somebody made the spots with a pencil.

REEVES: Usman was hanged when the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq was ruling Pakistan. Zia's agents accused Usman of murdering a policeman. Jabeen says that charge was concocted and that her brother was killed because of his politics. She's a lifelong activist for the Pakistan People's Party of the late Benazir Bhutto. She and her brother took part in many street protests demanding that Zia restore democracy. Usman was executed in prison four months before his 21st birthday. Jabeen and the family weren't allowed to be there, but she will, of course, never forget the moment.

JABEEN: (Through interpreter) It was 6 of August, 1984, Monday, 6:35 in the morning.

REEVES: The death sentence was imposed by a closed military court.

JABEEN: (Through interpreter) I felt as if my heart was weeping blood. I wanted to ask those who condemned him why they told such big lies.

REEVES: Pakistan now has an elected civilian government, yet significant judicial powers are again being turned over to the military. The catalyst is the Taliban attack in December against an army-run school in Peshawar. Most of the 150 people killed were schoolboys. The massacre triggered public anger and demands for effective action to stamp out Islamist militancy. The government and opposition parties agreed to amend the Constitution and introduce military courts for terrorism-related cases for a two-year period. Author and activist Pervez Hoodbhoy says most Pakistanis consider military courts to be an unfortunate necessity.

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: Because of the failure of the civilian courts of the judicial system, the judges who have sentenced terrorists to death have had to flee the country. Their children have been threatened. On occasion they have been murdered.

REEVES: Pakistan has spent half its 68-year history under military rule. Even now, the army is very powerful. Evidence that the military's powers are expanding worry its critics. Asma Jahangir has spent decades campaigning for democracy and human rights.

ASMA JAHANGIR: It is of particular sensitivity because the more we militarize our society, the more we will become hardened. We will see more violence, and we will not see the end of terrorism.

REEVES: Jahangir doesn't accept that Pakistan's civilian judiciary is completely dysfunctional.

JAHANGIR: It's not a satisfactory judiciary. There is much reforms to be carried out. Does not mean that we take away the powers and give it to another institution that is not trained for it.

REEVES: Zafar Ali Shah is a senator from the government's ruling party. He says party loyalty meant he had to vote for military courts, but he still feels bad about it.

ZAFAR ALI SHAH: Oh, too difficult. Today, I cannot compel myself.

REEVES: You see, Shah is also a lawyer.

SHAH: That was unconstitutional step. There was no doubt.

REEVES: In Pakistan, lawyers are a significant political force. Their professional associations are turning to Pakistan's Supreme Court, asking it to block the military courts. Big themes are in play here including an argument over the balance of power between the judiciary, parliament and the military.

JABEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: That argument has been going on in Pakistan since before Shahida Jabeen's brother was executed three decades ago. Leafing through her photo album, Jabeen points out that she wants terrorists wiped out. She's not against capital punishment. But she fears there will now be more innocent victims like her brother. Pakistanis need due process, she says, because military courts are...

JABEEN: Mad, mad, mad.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Lahore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.