Pakistan gives army broad election powers at polling stations

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s election authorities have granted broad judicial powers to the powerful military at polling stations during next week’s general election, a rare move that has fanned concern among political parties and human rights groups.

FILE PHOTO: Paramilitary soldiers walk past the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan January 16, 2012. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo

The July 25 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 offence 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), told Reuters. “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.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Saad Sayeed. Additional reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Kay Johnson and Clarence Fernandez