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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 16:50 GMT
Analysis: Justice under scrutiny
Karachi court The Supreme Court in Karachi where Nawaz Sharif stands trial

By Zafar Abbas in Islamabad

The demand by international human rights groups for a free and fair trial under a more acceptable judicial process is understandable.

Pakistan in crisis
The Pakistani concept of speedy justice, which circumvents the normal judicial process, has often been criticised by human rights groups, both at home and abroad.

However, for Nawaz Sharif, the irony is that he has remained the biggest advocate of this system, and it is now difficult for him to question their functioning.

The system of speedy justice is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan.

In different forms, such courts have been in place for the more than a decade. Even anti-terrorism courts have been operating in the country for the last few years.

The rationale for this system of speedy justice was that since the existing civilian courts were already over-burdened with tens of thousands of cases, it was not possible for them to dispose of cases of terrorism, which the authorities felt needed to be dealt with in a swift and firm manner.

Controversy

But these courts became highly controversial in the last few years when successive governments started to appoint judges of their own choice, and the courts were used against political opponents.

Nawaz Sharif Difficult for Nawaz Sharif to question fairness of courts
However, earlier this year, the entire system of speedy justice underwent a big change, when the Supreme Court directed the then government of Nawaz Sharif to amend the Anti-Terrorism Act in order to delete certain controversial clauses, and to bring it in line with the country's existing judicial system.

The Supreme Court also took away the powers of the government to appoint the judges for these courts at will, and instead laid down certain guidelines for the selection of judges, as well as for the system of appeal.

The anti-terrorism courts, as they exist now, are single judge courts.

The judges are appointed with the approval of the chief justices of the respective provincial high courts.

Checks and balances

These courts function under the amended Anti-terrorism Act, and have powers to decide all cases of terrorism, communal violence, murder and other serious crimes, and to hand down sentences, including the capital punishment.

Many legal experts say that even if the speedy disposal of case by an anti-terrorism court is not in line with the international standards of justice, the right of two appeals in the country's superior courts provides a sufficient check against any complaints of unfair practice or miscarriage of justice.

But although human rights groups are raising questions about the fairness of the system, it remains extremely difficult for Nawaz Sharif to question the fairness of his trial.

No military tribunal

He was after all an architect of the present system.

Soldiers in jeeps Military courts will not be trying the former prime minister
Indeed, some say he should be thankful to the Supreme Court for putting an effective check on his ambitious plans to run this system of speedy justice by having special military courts.

The military courts had started to function in Karachi on Mr Sharif's instructions earlier this year, during which time two people were hanged.

Had the Supreme Court not intervened to declare the courts unconstitutional, they would still be operating, and one of them would now have been holding Nawaz Sharif's trial.

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See also:
29 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Curbs on Sharif trial
24 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Trial blow for Sharif
10 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Sharif charged with murder plot
22 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Military takeover challenged in court
11 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Pakistan's coup: The 17-hour victory

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