Military Tribunal Courts in Gilgit Baltistan: A Suicide Attack on Local Autonomy

Gilgit Baltistan is pressing for autonomy as part of a larger push towards democracy.

Gilgit-Baltistan-Chief-Minister

Gilgit Baltistan Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah. Credit: Flickr

The Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan, long under dispute with India, operates without a constitutional framework.

This lack of rule of law has meant that all judicial matters have been guided by political motives. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent establishment of military tribunal courts in the region is a continuation of the policy to rule Gilgit Baltistan as a modern day colony.

The military tribunals, which have a two year term, have been established through an executive order. The use of executive orders to extend and entrench the occupation into Gilgit Baltistan has a long history. In the past Islamabad has used them to establish the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), General Zia’s martial law, Sharia courts as well as the anti-terrorism courts in Gilgit Baltistan.

It was through an executive order that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto violated the State Subject Rule to promote illegal settlements in Gilgit Baltistan. Executive orders are issued routinely to appropriate local resources without due process or compensation. They are also used to station military garrisons in the region in direct violation of the UN Resolutions on Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan.

If we are to judge from media reports, there is overwhelming support among local politicians for the tribunals. To better understand the lack of outcry, one must contextualize it in relation to the upcoming assembly elections in the summer. Candidates are keenly aware that in a disputed and strategically sensitive region like Gilgit Baltistan, the military has a heavy footprint in local affairs including elections. This consideration is a key factor in the response of those with an eye to winning assembly seats.

Notable outcry, on the other hand, is heard from those concerned for the rule of law. One such voice is that of Ms. Asma Jehangir, the former president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, who states that the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, set forth by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, does not envisage military courts. She goes on to affirm that neither Article 1 of the Pakistani constitution which defines boundaries nor the 21st Amendment, which enables military courts, define Gilgit Baltistan as part of Pakistan.

According to advocate Ehsan Ali, president of High Court Bar Association and chairperson of Gilgit Baltistan Peoples Action Committee (AAC), the establishment of military courts is designed to suppress political expression and freedom. He asserts that those convicted are denied due process and the right to seek redress in appellate courts. He further adds that military officers function as both judge and juror and lack autonomy from the military apparatus.

In addition, he challenges Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s claim that the tribunals strengthen the judicial system. He believes that given the lack of accountability and transparency, such an ad hoc arrangement will rather strengthen arbitrary control, curtail the authority of local judges and represent a step towards martial law.

According to advocate Shehbaz, president of Gilgit Baltistan Bar Association, Pakistan is using the Gilgit Baltistan Council, a political entity with no constitutional mandate, to legitimize military courts in the region. Since its inception five years ago, the council has consistently diminished local control to the benefit of Islamabad. The Council claims to represent Gilgit Baltistan despite the fact that the majority of its appointed members do not originate from the region. Advocate Shehbaz maintains that such decisions should stem from the Gilgit-based legislative assembly.

According to Abdul Hamid Khan, chairperson of Balawaristan National Front, the tribunal courts will target political workers and activists. He states that, despite expectations of the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATC) to prosecute terrorists, it has instead been used politically to prop up a colonial system. He adds that the military first promoted extremists to counter secular and nationalist groups and then used the specter of extremism to justify increased military presence to maintain law and order. According to Khan, it is a win-win situation for the military at the expense of locals.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Peshawar military school, the military seized the opportunity to impose the tribunals, despite that the incidence was a security and intelligence failure rather than a judicial one. As Khan suggests, modern terrorism is a blowback of a policy to prop up violent, pro-Sharia elements to destabilize India and Afghanistan. It is further fueled by the military’s introduction of a practice of appointing madrassa and mosque clerics who also promulgated violence against Shias and minorities.

As the symbiotic relationship of military and extremists serves the national interest; terrorist apparatus including those representing Hafiz Saeed, Syed Yusuf Salahuddin, Aurangzeb Faruqi, Asmatullah Muavia and Malik Ishaq continue to function without challenge. Recently, an official of Jamat Islami, a party that openly supports Al-Qaida, ISIS, Taliban, LeT and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was appointed Minister in Gilgit Baltistan. Such machinations raise questions about Pakistan’s commitment to end extremism and militancy. This insight suggests that the tribunals will not serve their professed function but rather become yet another tool to serve national interests which are tied with extremism.

While there is no doubt the local judicial system in Gilgit Baltistan is weak; military courts do nothing to strengthen it. The judicial system has failed due to a lack of constitutional provisions and ad hoc policies. Currently judges are political appointees with limited terms who report to the Minister of Kashmir Affairs. Their contract renewals hinge upon military and bureaucratic patronage.

Secondly, the intelligence agencies, including Military Intelligence (MI) intervene on the behalf of militant groups to obstruct due process through the extrajudicial release and transfer of terrorists to safe havens. Further, the threat of retaliation and the lack of personal security hinders the ability of judges to deliberate without concerns of repercussions. Therefore, the legal system needs strengthening and capacity building to ensure rule of law. In this light, the military must undergo an internal audit to establish policies and prosecute those who step outside of established protocol to impede the judicial system.

The political, judicial and economic institutions of Gilgit Baltistan are steadily evolving and pressing for autonomy, international assistance and capacity building as part of a larger push towards democracy. The hard earned progress made in the region is therefore hindered rather than helped by the establishment of the military courts which seek to suppress democratic processes of governance, transparency, accountability and civil society strengthening.

Senge Sering is a researcher and human rights advocate. He was born in the UN declared disputed region of Gilgit-Baltistan which remains in Pakistani control since 1948. Currently, he is managing the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies, based in Washington, DC. He frequently visits the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council, the European Parliament, the British Parliament and the American Congress where he raises awareness about Gilgit Baltistan. Senge has been instrumental in arranging conference on Gilgit Baltistan in collaboration with several US and European think tanks and disseminating information on related issues. Read other articles by Senge.