The Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a significant development on Thursday, granted conditional authorization to military courts for delivering reserved verdicts in cases involving civilians implicated in the May 9 riots. This pivotal decision emerged during the court’s deliberations on a series of intra-court appeals contesting its previous unanimous ruling from October 23, which had invalidated the military trials of civilians linked to the aforementioned riots.

BENCH COMPOSITION AND CASE BACKGROUND

Presided over by a distinguished six-member bench led by Justice Aminuddin Khan and including Justices Muhammad Ali Mazhar, Syed Azhar Hasan Rizvi, Shahid Waheed, Musarrat Hilali, and Irfan Saadat Khan, the session addressed the trial of over 100 civilians allegedly involved in assaults on army installations following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 9 of the preceding year.

Last year, a landmark decision by a five-member Supreme Court bench, composed of Justices Ijazul Ahsan, Munib Akhtar, Yahya Afridi, Syed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi, and Ayesha Malik, unanimously declared the trial of accused civilians in military courts as ultra vires the Constitution. The apex court mandated that the accused individuals should be tried in criminal courts established under the ordinary or special law of the land, thereby quashing the jurisdiction of military tribunals.

SUSPENSION OF PRIOR VERDICT AND APPEALS

However, on December 13, in a 5-1 majority ruling, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended its October 23 verdict, pending a final judgment, as it entertained a series of intra-court appeals. These appeals, filed by the caretaker federal government and provincial authorities in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Punjab, aimed to challenge the aforementioned ruling. Notably, Sindh had refrained from submitting an appeal on this matter and was consequently excluded from the petitions considered by the court earlier. The defense ministry also lodged an intra-court appeal, urging the Supreme Court to suspend the operation of the verdict during the pendency of the appeal process.

PETITIONS AND PLEAS

In January, Faisal Siddiqui filed a petition on behalf of some of the accused individuals contesting the military trials, seeking to prohibit federal and provincial governments from engaging private counsel to represent the case. On January 29, Justice Sardar Tariq Masood, now retired, referred the intra-court appeals back to a three-judge committee for the formation of a larger bench.

Earlier this month, former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Jawwad S. Khawaja, one of the petitioners challenging the military trials, implored the Supreme Court for an expedited hearing of the appeals, citing the prolonged detention of civilians in military custody as an issue requiring urgent redress.

ARGUMENTS DURING HEARING

During the recent hearing, Siddiqui argued that if the accused had been tried in regular courts, they would likely have been released or granted bail by now, emphasizing the lack of evidence in these cases. Justice Mazhar pointed out that trying the cases in anti-terrorism courts could lead to sentences of no less than 14 years.

The Attorney General for Pakistan, Mansoor Usman Awan, disclosed that the first information reports (FIRs) were registered under the Official Secrets Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act. When questioned about granting bail to the accused, Awan clarified that bail could only be granted once a sentence had been handed down, highlighting the necessity of legal processes.

Awan further indicated the potential release of 15 to 20 accused individuals by special courts, elaborating on the three-stage process for suspects’ release. He stressed the need for military courts to announce reserved verdicts and suggested that those with reduced sentences could be granted concessions by the army chief.

COURT’S DECISION AND DIRECTION

Following deliberations, the Supreme Court conditionally permitted military courts to announce reserved verdicts, particularly in cases where suspects could be released before Eid. The court underscored the assurances provided by the Attorney General regarding concessions for individuals with lesser sentences and stipulated that further appeals would be subject to the final decision on appeals against the October 23 ruling. Additionally, the court accepted the request of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government to withdraw its appeal against the said ruling.

ADJOURNMENT AND FUTURE PROCEEDINGS

Consequently, the hearing was adjourned until the fourth week of April, and the Attorney General was directed to furnish a report to the registrar regarding the proceedings.

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