COVID-19 Special Coverage
Pakistan top court upholds military court-imposed death sentences of 16 civilians
Pakistan top court upholds military court-imposed death sentences of 16 civilians

The Supreme Court of Pakistan [official website] on Monday upheld the death sentences of 16 civilians convicted of terror-related offenses by military courts. The appellants contended that their constitutional rights had been violated, as they were tried in secret, without access to lawyers of their choice, and their confessions were recorded illegally. In addition, the appellants claimed to have been denied access to military court records in planning their appeal. The court, through a five-member bench, concluded [Reuters report] that the military had not violated the constitutional rights of the appellants, and further found that the military courts followed procedure. This decision is the first time the Pakistan Supreme Court has chosen to discuss the legality of a military-tried case. Since 2015, secret military tribunals have been used to convict 104 civilians, 100 of whom have been sentenced to death, and four to life imprisonment.

Pakistan’s nine military courts were established in January of last year after Taliban militants attacked children in the Peshawar school massacre [BBC archive; JURIST report], killing 134 students and 19 adults. Military power was subsequently expanded, giving military courts jurisdiction to try civilians accused of terrorism despite the country’s civilian government. Critics argue that the new procedures defer too much power to the military. Allegations of torture and judicial abuse were widespread during the reign of previous Pakistani military courts. However, many Pakistanis support the military courts due to the crumbling civilian system. Pakistan’s use of the death penalty since December 2014 in both the civilian and military courts has faced widespread criticism. When the country’s six-year death penalty moratorium was lifted [JURIST report] that month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [official profile] said the death penalty would only be applied to terrorism-related cases. However, in March of last year the Pakistan Ministry of Interior lifted the country’s moratorium on the death penalty, permitting hangings for all prisoners [JURIST report] who have exhausted all possible appeals. The UN estimates that several hundred of the 8,000 inmates on Pakistan’s death row are minors [JURIST report].