Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s defence minister has defended the government’s decision to try civilians in military courts, calling their alleged attacks on military installations during recent protests an “act of rebellion against the state”.
Khawaja M Asif told Al Jazeera that the arrests of thousands of civilians over protests sparked by the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan this month were justified and alleged that army installations were intentionally targeted.
“These people attacked their [the military’s] offices. They attacked their houses. They attacked their installations, such as air bases,” Asif said in an interview on Wednesday. “They planned it. It was not spontaneous. You must understand the gravity of the offence, the gravity of events which took place.”
Thousands of Khan’s supporters, angry over the arrest of Pakistan’s main opposition leader, took to the streets on May 9 and May 10. A large part of that anger was directed towards the powerful military, which the protesters accuse of orchestrating their leader’s arrest.
Several military buildings and installations were attacked, some set on fire, as clashes with the security forces led to at least 10 deaths.
While Khan’s party says more than 10,000 people have been arrested and jailed as part of an unprecedented crackdown, the government says it has arrested more than 4,000 people involved in rioting and vandalism by using surveillance technology to track them.
The government had said it would try the protesters under the Army Act, triggering outrage among rights groups. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif later insisted that only those who attacked army infrastructure would be tried under the military law.
When passed in 1952, the Army Act was primarily used to put military personnel on trial before military courts. Later amendments also allowed civilians accused of certain offences to be tried by military courts.
If convicted by a military court, defendants have the right to file an appeal within 40 days before a military court of appeal. If the defendants still think they did not receive a fair trial, they may appeal to the high court in the jurisdiction in which they were tried.
On Thursday, an anti-terrorism court in the eastern city of Lahore approved the handover of 16 accused, including a former legislator from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, to be tried in a military court. It is not clear when the proceedings will start.
Asif defended the decision to try civilians in military courts, saying the government will ensure transparency during the trials.
“There is going to be absolute transparency in these cases,” he said. “There are three layers of appeals that go through the army chief, the high court and then the Supreme Court.”
But rights groups have raised concerns. Last week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent civil rights group, strongly opposed the use of military laws to try civilians.
“While those responsible for arson and damaging public and private property during the recent protests should be held to account, they remain entitled to due process,” the group said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also urged the Pakistani government to respect the rights of people arrested during the protests.
The military has long been considered the powerbroker in Pakistan, but Asif insisted that it was the ruling alliance that was calling the shots in the ongoing crackdown against the protesters. He accused the protesters of attacking the country.
“These people actually challenged the state. If it was against the political government, there was no problem. Criticising and challenging the political government is perfectly fine, but these people singularly chose to target army installations on May 9 and 10,” he told Al Jazeera.
Khan “thinks his adversary is the armed forces of Pakistan and not any political party. If there was an army government or a martial law, you [can] challenge that, but not the institution [itself],” the minister said.
Senator Faisal Javed Khan, a senior PTI leader, refuted Asif’s allegations and said the only way to find out if the protesters are guilty is through an independent investigation by a judicial commission.
“Our position is very clear: When you hold a free and fair investigation, you will find out this riot was carried out by violent miscreants who did not belong to PTI people, and it was done to damage the PTI and military’s relationship,” he said on Thursday.
Asif insisted that the government has made attempts to resolve the political tension and has held at least three rounds of talks with the PTI.
“There was a solution,” he said. “There was a settlement between the two delegations. We offered them to hold elections in early October. Even the date was settled. But Imran Khan refused to accept that. The PTI delegation showed their complete helplessness and said, ‘We are in full agreement with you, but our leader is not.’”
Faisal Javed Khan said no date had been agreed on. He denied that the former premier and the PTI were to blame and questioned how negotiations could productively take place when authorities were conducting raids on the homes of PTI leaders.
“This is just sheer hypocrisy,” the senator said. “If the government thinks there was some solution or a date was agreed upon, so why did they not reveal it back then? The issue is not Khan or the party. It is about implementing and respecting the constitution.”
“How can they say when our delegation team categorically said no conclusion was reached,” he said.
Faisal Javed Khan said citizens of Pakistan know that the former premier respects the army and any attempt to ban the PTI would fail.
“Imran Khan has always said that Pakistan needs the army more than myself,” the senator said. “He has at every forum repeated that the military is the need of the country and must be respected.”
Over the decades, the military has faced accusations of violating their constitutional oath not to meddle in political affairs.
The defence minister acknowledged in the interview that the military’s “exposure in the political realm” has hurt the country.
“There are many people who have hurt the state over the last 75 years – judiciary, politicians, army leadership. We must name them to settle the accounts of history. There must be a trial, even if symbolic in nature,” Asif said.
“If there is no repentance, there is no atonement. … If you are seeking atonement, there must be some process where you can shed this baggage of history.”