In the serene remoteness of the Attock Fort, the only civilians allowed inside the courtroom where a field general court martial is in progress are a few lawyers and eight accused prisoners, including a woman. As such, the reason why the trial is being held under the military laws is not clear. It may be because the ninth coaccused in the case is a soldier or because the man these prisoners conspired to kill is Pakistan’s army chief. In any case, the trial in an environment controlled by the army’s commando unit may prove controversial because its implications for civil society far outweigh those for the military.
The ninth accused is Naik Arshad Mahmood alias Amir Fauji alias Laraib. He belongs to 1-Commando Battalion of the Special Service Group and was posted on security duty at the residence of the vice chief of army staff at the time of his arrest in early 2004. The other accused, most of whom boast ‘jihadi’ backgrounds, include Zubair Ahmed alias Tauseef, Rashid Qureshi alias Tipu alias Ibrahim, Ghulam Sarwar Bhatti alias Salahuddin, Ikhlas Ahmed alias Russi, Adnan Khan alias Dana, Ameer Sohail alias Sajjad, Rana Mohammad Naveed and his wife Shazia Mubashir. Those who are absconding in the case have apparently not been named in this trial.
The prosecution has so far presented more than 60 witnesses in the case, including another army commando who, after being involved in the planning of the conspiracy to assassinate General Musharraf, abandoned the group. Other witnesses include a number of military intelligence personnel, investigators, an arms dealer from the tribal areas, those who shipped the weapons to Rawalpindi, car dealers who sold the vehicles used in the suicide attacks, police officials and others who claim to have witnessed the suicide attack on the fateful day of December 25.
Although some of the accused had earlier given confessional statements, they have retracted the same and pleaded “not guilty” during the course of the trial. In fact, some of them are even said to have cross-examined the prosecution witnesses in an attempt to prove them false. A few have recorded fresh statements that are different from the statements recorded earlier. For example, Naik Mahmood, while admitting to being in contact with some of the other accused and his role in the procurement of arms and ammunition including missiles, has stated that he thought the cache was meant for the Kashmir cause. Others have also tried to distance themselves from the suicide attack of December 25.
The military may take pride in its own system of justice but when civilians are tried by military courts questions about fairness and transparency are bound to be raised.
The court martial is slated to conclude some time soon and its verdict would be made public through the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). But observers believe that even if the proceedings are conducted fairly, the outcome will be at least as controversial as was the case itself. “The military may continue to take pride in its own system of justice but when civilians are tried by military courts behind closed doors, questions are about fairness and transparency are bound to be raised,” says one observer. High-profile court martials have not always been held behind closed doors, he says. There are a few cases that were open to the media, including one held at the infamous Attock Fort, even at a time when the press was not as free as it is today.
Apparently, the trend to encourage closed-doors proceedings set in with the rise of Islamic militancy which has had a symbiotic relationship with the military and ‘jihad’ in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Clearly, many issues debated during such trials are considered taboo for public discussion as they might damage national interest.
In recent years, the first such field court martial was held in the mid-1990s when Major General Zaheerul Islam Abassi and three other army officers were tried for planning, with the help of the militants belonging to the Harkatul Ansar, to seize the army general headquarters, overthrow the Benazir Bhutto government and install an Islamic government. One of the accused was the then Harkat chief Qari Saifullah Akhtar, whose name was later dropped from the list of the accused when he agreed to become an approver in the case. Akhtar later slipped into Afghanistan, remained closely involved with the Taliban and other militant groups and was only recently re-arrested by Pakistan with the help of the Dubai authorities. The rest of the accused in the conspiracy were found guilty and awarded long jail terms.
A more recent in-camera court martial tried those accused of involvement in the December 14, 2003, incident in which a bridge was blown up near the Jhanda Chichi road crossing in an attempt to assassinate Musharraf. Several of the accused were low-ranking personnel of the Pakistan Air Force but a few were also civilians. The news of the trial hit the streets only after information about the death sentences awarded to some of the accused leaked out. The authorities subsequently confirmed the reports of the trial.
No one seems to know – certainly not among the civilians – if any other such court martial is underway in the country. What we do know is that a number present of army officers were arrested more than a year ago and several civilians accused of having links with various banned militant organisations have also been rounded up. If there is one, the people will be told only when the news leaks or when a verdict is made public by the ISPR. The question is, are such secret trials really any help in curbing extremism in the country? Far from it, believe many observers. In fact, given their lack of transparency, such trials may well end up creating sympathy for the extremists. ■
This article was originally published in the Herald's June 2005 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.