The political tension in Pakistan is intensifying following the decision on May 16, 2023, by the National Security Council (NSC), which consists of civilian and military leadership, to invoke the Army Act and Official Secrets Act against civilian protestors. The demonstrators were protesting the arrest of the former Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan, on May 9, 2023, by police and rangers in Islamabad. After the arrest, police cracked down against the PTI leaders and workers.
The protests eventually escalated into riots at an Army official's house in Lahore, formerly known as Mohammad Ali Jinnah House on May 9. On May 11, 2023, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that the arrest of Imran Khan on corruption charges was illegal.
Notably, the NSC meeting saw the attendance of the former Interim Chief Ministers of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who have exceeded their caretaker term and disregarded the Supreme Court's directive to conduct legitimate elections.
On May 20, 2023, The Pakistani Federal cabinet approved the National Security Council's decision to persecute the protestors in military court.
Pakistan's contentious Army Act and Official Secrets Act
The Pakistan Army Act (1952) is the military’s own legal code to trial Pakistani military personnel and civilians associated with the military.
Civilians who are arrested and face trial in military courts under the Army Act and Official Secrets Act (Pakistan's Anti-Espionage Act is aimed at prosecuting individuals who aid the enemy in acts against the state) can potentially face severe punishments, including the death penalty or life imprisonment. While civilians have the option to transfer their cases to civil courts, the prevailing circumstances of mass political arrests and abductions without formal arrest warrants make the situation highly tense and precarious.
Mohsin Dawar, the Chairman of Pakistan Democratic Movement (NDM), a political coalition that succeeded in ousting Imran Khan in April 2022, strongly rejected the idea of conducting trials for civilians under the Army Act.
Lawmaker Khushal Khan tweeted:
Trying civilians under the Army Act will be very dangerous. It will set a precedent that will affect political workers. @mjdawar Chairman @NDM_Official speaking at the National Assembly today. pic.twitter.com/vxswKZGlNl
— Khushal Khan (@Khushal_Khattak) May 16, 2023
After being granted bail and released by the court, the police re-arrested several prominent leaders, including Shireen Mazari, Senator Falak Naz, and Fawad Chaudhry.
Expat PTI supporter Usman Hashmi tweeted:
Shireen Mazari arrested again. she was taken for the third time just a little while ago.
Stay Strong Shireen Mazari. #Release7000Pakistanis pic.twitter.com/rkAhe9RrxR
— uzii (@uziihashmi_) May 17, 2023
On May 12, individuals who participated in the protests were reportedly abducted and subjected to physical assault.
The brutal actions of the police in Pakistan are horrifying. Abducting and beating peaceful protesting women is a clear sign of fascism.@TeamPakPower#حوا_کی_بیٹیوں_کو_عزت_دو pic.twitter.com/wDQOqJ74Jh
— Saima Azhar (@S5S_492) May 18, 2023
Additionally, Khadija Shah, a renowned designer associated with Elan, has been arrested and will likely face trial under the Army Act.
Twitter user Erica added:
still she is missing , order has been issued by Lahore High Court for the release of #SanamJaved & for other ladies also but they are in police custody for more than 5 days today .#PTI #ReleaseIRK #ReleaseSanamJavaidKhan #Release_PTI_workers #ReleaseImranRiazKhan pic.twitter.com/bQnUrt9RVh
— 𝑬𝒓𝒊𝒄𝒂 🌸 (@Iamerica1111) May 16, 2023
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has strongly opposed the military's decision to try the individuals involved in the May 9 protests for vandalism under the Pakistan Army Act 1952 and Official Secrets Act 1923.
Amnesty International also strongly condemned Pakistan's military for arresting civilians via military laws, arguing that “trying civilians in military courts is against international law and violates the right to a fair trial”
🇵🇰Pakistan: Any indication that the trial of civilians could be held in military courts is incompatible with Pakistan’s obligations under international human rights law: https://t.co/SMXWQlVBce
— Amnesty International South Asia, Regional Office (@amnestysasia) May 16, 2023
In 2021, Hasan Askari, a political analyst and the son of a retired major general was convicted by a military court under the Pakistan Army Act. During the trial, Askari was denied the right to have his own legal representation, and instead, a lawyer was appointed by the military court to support him.
Despite the NSC meeting being convened to address the riots at Corps Commander Lahore's house, the main motive appears to be to exert control over Imran Khan and subject him to trial under the Army Act — as per Noman Khan from Karachi, a prominent pro-military commentator who tweeted:
اس ویڈیو میں جو جو ہے بلوائیوں کے لیڈران بمعہ مہاتما اگر ان پر آرمی ایکٹ اور سیکرٹ ایکٹ نہیں لگاتے یا کوئی لارڈز لگانے نہیں دیتے تو عام کارکنان کو بھی رہا کر دیں جو لالچ اور گمراہی میں مبتلا ہو کر استعمال ہو گئے۔جب تک اصل سہولت کاروں اور راستہ دکھانے اور اکسانے والوں سزائیں نہیں… pic.twitter.com/GnH4e4Gnpb
— Noman Khan (@dtnoorkhan) May 17, 2023
If they do not impose the Army Act and Secret Act on the rioters and their leader (Imran Khan) in this video, then they should also release the common workers who were used due to greed and misguidance. Until the original facilitators and those who provide guidance, along with the instigators, are not punished, it will continue to happen repeatedly.
It is important to take note that the National Security Council meeting included Bilawal Bhutto, who claims his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was judicially murdered by Zia ul Haq, the former Army Chief of Pakistan. Additionally, Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz Sharif from the Pakistan Muslim League, was present, despite their turbulent relationship with the establishment and previous instances of being ousted from the government by the Army.
Imtiaz Gul, author and the Executive Director of the Center for Research and security studies, tweeted:
The stick of trials under Army & Secrets Act takes Pakistan back to General Zia martial law era – this time by civilians themselves https://t.co/pPsfh6Wi2D
— Imtiaz Gul (@ImtiazGul60) May 16, 2023
Among the countries in South Asia, Pakistan stands alone in permitting military courts to conduct trials of civilians for non-military offenses, including charges related to terrorism. As the pressure intensifies for Pakistan to end this oppressive, draconian law, the international community is taking note and could very well shift relations with the nation.