Pakistan's apex court has ruled that intelligence officials distributed money among politicians to rig the 1990 general election. Analysts say it is proof of the ISI's involvement in the country's domestic politics.
On Friday, Pakistan's apex court ruled that the petition filed by retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan - which accused the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of distributing money to a number of politicians - was admissible for regular hearing. The court ordered the federal government to take legal action against former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg and the ISI's former chief retired Lieutenant General Asad Durrani.
The petition, which had been filed by Khan in 1996, alleged that the ISI had given 140 million rupees (1.4 million euros) to politicians during the 1990 parliamentary election to create an alliance against former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and to stop her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) from coming to power for the second time. Bhutto's first government had been dissolved by then Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on charges of corruption.
“Late Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the then president of Pakistan, retired General Aslam Beg and retired General Asad Durrani acted in violation of the Constitution,” the Supreme Court said in a short verdict on Friday. The court also ordered the incumbent PPP government to abolish political cells of the ISI and the President House and take legal action against former retired generals and politicians, who had "received donations to spend on election campaigns in the general election of 1990.”
The Supreme Court ruling, however, absolved the ISI as an institution from conspiring against President Zardari's late wife Bhutto, who was murdered in a suicide attack in 2007 in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
The court said that as an institution, the ISI was not responsible for rigging the 1990 elections, and that the former generals acted on their own volition.
Pakistani experts have cautiously lauded the court's ruling. The say that the court's decision is a step in the right direction but it is "unfair" to exonerate the Pakistani army and the ISI from institutional responsibility.
"How can it be an act of individuals?" questioned Rahat Saeed, a veteran political activist in Karachi. "It is impossible that in an organized institution like the Pakistani army, serving generals, can act on their own. It is beyond my comprehension."
Saeed told DW that the Pakistani army had been involved in domestic politics ever since the country gained independence. "The ISI's job is to protect Pakistan from foreign threats but it is more involved in domestic politics," he added. He believed that the apex court decision would not be enough to "tame" the ISI.
Ghazi Salahuddin, a Karachi-based Pakistani journalist, told DW that the court's ruling would not change anything in Pakistani politics.
But there are many people in Pakistan who think that the Supreme Court's decision is a step in the right direction. Supporters of an independent Pakistani judiciary pin hopes on the judiciary as a rebalancing force in a country which has been largely dominated by powerful army generals and corrupt civilian politicians.
Bhutto (left) and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sahrif were bitter rivals in the 1990s
At the forefront of this judicial activism is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Chaudhry was sacked by the former Pakistani president and army chief Pervez Musharraf in 2007; a move that triggered nationwide resistance by lawyers in support of Chaudhry. Pakistani civil society and private media also backed the lawyers' movement, which finally culminated in the restoration of Chaudhry as the apex court chief.
Many people in Pakistan point out that Friday's decision is proof that the Pakistani judiciary, which in the past has often been accused of working as a rubber stamp for the Pakistani army, is finally independent enough to challenge the generals.
"I think it is a positive decision," Rasheed Rizvi, former president of the Sindh High Court bar council, told DW. "It is the responsibility of the federal government now to carry this forward and act against responsible persons."
Rizvi said it was unfair to criticize the judiciary for not implicating the ISI as an institution in this case. "The court ruled in the light of the evidence which was presented to it."
He also said that instead of confronting the military and the ISI, the PPP's government had chosen to protect the two institutions throughout the case.
Some Pakistani analysts also say that the decision suits all parties involved in this case - the PPP has scored politically, whereas the ISI has been given a clean chit.