Pakistan gives army sweeping election powers at polling stations


ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s poll panel has given sweeping judicial powers to the powerful military at polling stations for the upcoming general elections on July 25.

The election is seen as a two-way race between parties led by former cricket star Imran Khan and now-jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has accused the army of working behind the scenes to favor Khan, which it denies.

About 371,000 troops will spread out across Pakistan to guard the election, about three times the number during the last election in 2013.

In a notice this month, the Election Commission gave soldiers the authority of a “magistrate”, to hold on-the-spot trials of anyone breaking election laws and sentence them.

In one scenario, those found guilty of the offense of “corrupt practice” could be imprisoned for up to six months.

The authority was given to officers in charge of polling stations, said Altaf Khan, a spokesman for the Election Commission. Asked if the broader responsibility could be misused, he said, “No, not at all... They are our own people.”

Some political parties objected to the move, saying the military’s traditional election duties have been limited to ensuring security.

“It is a new first,” Farhatullah Babar, a lawmaker from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said. “Governance, society and politics have already been militarized dangerously.”

Pakistan’s military has seized power several times since independence in 1947 and directly ruled for almost half the country’s history.

The army would remain neutral, military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told a news conference this month.

“The Pakistan army’s role is to support the election commission with the tasks they have asked us to help,” he said.

The military has received similar powers at least once before, during a series of special elections in 2013.

The army’s expanded powers are worrisome during a general election, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said, however.

“Such measures are unprecedented and border dangerously on micro-management by an institution that should not be involved so closely in what is strictly a civilian mandate,” it said in a statement.

The move was disturbing because it gave the military a judicial function, said Haider Imtiaz, a lawyer.

“It violates the spirit of the constitution,” he added.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party welcomed the order, however.

“The (Election Commission) is supposed to ensure free and fair elections and this step seems to be in that direction,” said party spokesman Naeem Ul Haq.

In another development, a peace activist who disappeared last year after criticizing Pakistan’s military has returned to his home in the eastern province of Punjab, his friends said on Friday.

Raza Mehmood Khan, 40, a member of the Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship) group that works to build peace with arch-rival India, had not been heard from since Dec.2.

His family had filed a writ of habeas corpus in a court in the eastern city of Lahore in the belief that he had been unlawfully detained by unknown authorities.

But on Friday, one of his friends, Ali Aftab Saeed, said Khan had returned.

“Raza is back,” Saeed said. “That’s the only thing I know.”

Another friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Khan had returned to the city of Kasur in Punjab on Wednesday.

The police declined to comment.

On the day of his disappearance, Khan had spoken at a forum on militancy and posted comments on Facebook critical of the military and its suspected link to some hardliners.

Four activists critical of the army and its attitude towards militant groups went missing last year but reappeared after about a month. Two later said Pakistani military intelligence agents abducted and tortured them.

The military denied the accusations. — Agencies