Islamabad – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday approved controversial new military courts set up to hear terror cases, rejecting an attempt to have them ruled illegal.
Lawmakers had voted in January to amend the constitution to establish the military courts, as part of a crackdown on militancy following a Taliban massacre at a school which left more than 150 people — mostly children — dead.
The move prompted concern from rights activists and in April a group of lawyers challenged the constitutional amendment.
A 17-member bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed their petition by 11 votes to six.
In his detailed judgment Chief Justice Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk said the court did not have the power to strike down constitutional amendments made by the elected parliament.
But he said the decision to send a case for trial by military court and “any order passed or decision taken or sentence awarded” could be subject to judicial review in a normal court.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif welcomed the ruling, saying the “unusual step” of setting up military courts was necessary to defeat militants.
“This decision will discourage terrorism in the country,” he told parliament.
Kamran Murtaza, a former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a petitioner in the case, told AFP they would consider asking the court to review its decision.
“We stated in our petitions that the matter of military courts is not in accordance with the constitution and it is against human rights,” Murtaza said.
“It affects the basic structure and independence of judiciary itself.”
Parliament has approved the use of the courts for the coming two years, and cases are referred to them by provincial governments.
But some have called for the trials to be more transparent.
The International Commission of Jurists on Wednesday condemned the military courts as “secret, opaque” and in violation of fair trial obligations.
The army announced the first verdicts and sentences from the new courts in April. Six militants were condemned to death and another jailed for life, all on terrorism charges, though scant details of the offences and trials were given.
The Supreme Court suspended the sentences while it heard the legal challenge to the courts.