Pakistan: as military courts lapse, Government must prioritize reform of the criminal justice system

As military courts in Pakistan once again cease to have jurisdiction over civilians for terrorism-related offences, the Government must bring reforms to strengthen the country’s criminal justice system, the ICJ said today.

Perpetrators of terrorist attacks and other serious crime must be brought to justice fair trials before competent, independent and impartial courts as required under international law, the ICJ added.

“The lapse of the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians is a step in the right direction, but unsurprisingly – even four years after military courts were empowered to try civilians – there is no sign of the promised reforms to strengthen the ordinary criminal justice system to effectively and fairly handle terrorism-related cases,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia Director.

The 23rd Amendment and corresponding amendments to the Army Act, 1952, lapsed on 30 March 2019, as their respective two-year sunset clauses expired. So far, the Government has failed to get support from opposition parties for a constitutional amendment to once again extend the jurisdiction of military courts to conduct trials of civilians.

“The Government must not re-enact legislation to continue secret military trials of civilians, nor resort to more short-term, short-sighted security measures that are contrary to Pakistan’s obligations to protect human rights,” Rawski said.

“Instead, the Government should urgently invest in enhancing the capacity and security of judges, investigators and prosecutors to make the regular criminal justice system more effective in conducting fair, credible terrorism trials, and bringing perpetrators to account without imposing the death penalty.”

According to military sources and ICJ’s monitoring of military trials in Pakistan since January 2015, military courts have convicted 617 people for terrorism-related offences, out of which 346 people have been sentenced to death and 271 people have been given prison sentences. At least 56 people have been hanged. Only four people have been acquitted.

The ICJ has documented serious fair trials violations in the operation of military courts, including: denial of the right to counsel of choice; failure to disclose the charges against the accused; denial of a public hearing; failure to give convicts copies of a judgment with evidence and reasons for the verdict; and a very high number of convictions based on “confessions” without adequate safeguards against torture and ill treatment.


Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director (Bangkok), e: frederick.rawski(a)

Reema Omer, ICJ International Legal Adviser for Pakistan (London), t: +447889565691; e: reema.omer(a)

Additional information

Military courts were first empowered to try civilians for certain terrorism-related offences in January 2015 through the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and amendments to the Pakistan Army Act, 1952, which were in operation for a period of two years.

The expansion of the jurisdiction of military tribunals was a key part of the Government’s 20-point National Action Plan, adopted following the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014. NAP envisioned military courts to be a short-term “solution” to try “terrorists”, to be operational only for a two-year period during which the government would bring about necessary “reforms in criminal courts system to strengthen the anti-terrorism institutions”.

Despite promises that military courts were only temporary, after the expiration of the 21st Amendment, on 31 March 2017, Parliament enacted the 23rd Amendment and amendments to the Army Act to renew military courts’ jurisdiction over civilians. The amendments were given retrospective effect from 7 January 2017, and were due to lapse two years after their date of “commencement”. The expanded jurisdiction of military courts lapsed on 30 March 2019 (even though earlier reports suggested the amendments would expire on 6 January 2019) — two years after the date of “operation” of the 23rd Amendment).

The ICJ opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a form cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and an arbitrary denial of the right to life.  The ICJ recalls that the UN General Assembly has by overwhelming majorities repeatedly called on all states the retain the death penalty to place a moratorium on the practice with a view to abolition. Pakistan previously had such a moratorium from 2008 to 2014.