Pakistan: end military trials of civilians

by | Apr 3, 2018 | News

The secret military trials of civilians charged with terrorism-related offences are a continuing breach of Pakistan’s international human rights obligations, the ICJ said today.

Military courts were first empowered to try civilians for certain terrorism-related offences on 7 January 2015 by the 21st amendment to the Constitution and amendments to the Pakistan Army Act, 1952, which were in operation for a period of two years.

One year ago, on 31 March 2017, President Mamnoon Hussain signed into law the 23rd amendment to the Constitution to renew military courts’ jurisdiction over civilians until 6 January 2019.

“The renewal of military trials for civilians accused of terrorism last year has only weakened the rule of law, and undermined the right to fair trial and equality before the law in Pakistan,” said Matt Pollard, ICJ’s Senior Legal Adviser.

“Pakistan should end the role of military courts in such cases, and instead strengthen the ability of ordinary courts and law enforcement to ensure investigations and trials that are both fair and effective, in line with its domestic law and international human rights obligations,” he added.

According to the military’s media office and information collected by the ICJ, military courts have convicted 346 people since January 2015, out of which 196 people have been sentenced to death and 150 people have been given prison sentences.

At least 56 people have been hanged. Only one person has 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.

Such use of military courts to try civilians is inconsistent with international fair trial standards, and the imposition of the death penalty after such trials violates the right to life.

Families of more than a hundred people convicted by military courts have alleged the convicts were denied a right to a fair trial in petitions to the Supreme Court and various high courts in the country.

Despite acknowledging possible denial of fair trial, the ordinary courts have thus far refused to provide relief to the petitioners due to their lack of jurisdiction over military courts.

The expansion of the jurisdiction of military tribunals through the amendments to the Constitution and the Pakistan Army Act were a part of the Pakistani government’s 20-point “National Action Plan”, adopted following the horrific attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.

The NAP contemplated military courts only as a short-term “solution” to try “terrorists”, on the basis that they would be operational only for a short period during which the Government would bring about necessary “reforms in criminal courts system to strengthen the anti-terrorism institutions.”

However, with less than a year left before the extension under the 23rd Constitutional Amendment is set to expire, no such reforms have taken place.


 Matt Pollard, ICJ Senior Legal Adviser and UN Representative (Geneva); e:

Reema Omer, ICJ International Legal Adviser for South Asia (London), t: +447889565691; e:


 The 23rd constitutional amendment allows military tribunals to try civilians who allegedly belong to “a terrorist group or organization misusing the name of religion or a sect” and are suspected of committing a number of offences, including: abducting any person for ransom; raising arms of waging war against Pakistan; causing any person injury or death; using or designing vehicles for terrorist attacks; creating terror or insecurity in Pakistan; and attempting, aiding or abetting any of these acts.

In July 2017, in its Concluding Observations after Pakistan’s first periodic review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Human Rights Committee stated that it was concerned by the extension of the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians and allegations of fair trial violations in military courts’ proceedings.

The Human Rights Committee recommended that Pakistan “review the legislation relating to the military courts with a view to abrogating their jurisdiction over civilians and their authority to impose the death penalty” and “reform the military courts to bring their proceedings into full conformity with articles 14 and 15 of the Covenant in order to ensure a fair trial.”

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