The Pakistani Supreme Court has ordered an inquiry into the case of the alleged murder of four prisoners under detention of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), throwing a spotlight on the secretive agency.
Eleven people were arrested by the ISI in 2007 for their alleged role in a failed assassination attempt on the former military chief and president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, in 2003. In 2010, an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi freed them due to a lack of evidence. On May 29, 2010, these people were again taken into custody by the ISI. This time the ISI officials claimed these people were linked to militant Taliban groups and were involved in terrorist activities in the country's restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
In the past six months, four out of these 11 men, aged between 20 and 30 - Muhammad Aamir, Tehseen Allah, Syed al-Arab and Abdul Suboor - have been mysteriously found dead during ISI detention. The ISI said these people died due to ailments.
On Monday, Pakistan's highest court ordered an investigation into these alleged murders and asked the ISI to bring the remaining detainees to the court on February 9, acting on the request of the relatives of the deceased. The court also asked the military intelligence agencies to submit written explanations about the deaths.
Advocate Tariq Asad, a lawyer representing the men's families, told Shakoor Rahim, Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Islamabad, that it was "abnormal for such young men to die like this in the hospital." He said he believed the men were killed and that he would file a murder case accordingly.
ISI lawyer Raja Irshad refuted the allegations and said these were part of the campaign spearheaded by those who wanted to malign and disrepute the military agency.
"I will tell in my report about the consequences of the deaths and that will satisfy the court," Irshad told the Pakistani media after the Supreme Court hearing. "The allegations that they were poisoned are baseless. We offered to conduct a post-mortem of the deceased but their relatives did not want it," added Irshad.
Defense and political analyst Nasim Zehra partially agreed that the ISI was maligned internationally.
"There is no question about it. In the case of external conflicts, it (the ISI) clashes with intelligence agencies of other countries, be it the CIA or (India's external intelligence agency) RAW. All these agencies follow their national interests. Domestically, it is a totally different issue, and there we have concerns about ISI's role," she told Deutsche Welle.
ISI: a state within a state
Human rights bodies criticize Pakistan's spy agencies, in particular the ISI, for acting as a state within a state, and kidnapping political and social activists with impunity.
The Pakistani government has acknowledged some 400 cases of missing people who have allegedly been picked up by intelligence operatives on suspicion of "anti-state" activities. Pakistan's human rights groups put the number of missing persons at over 1,000. Most of these people are supposed to be members of the Pakistani Taliban, operating in the north-western province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and from the Baluch insurgent groups in the western province of Baluchistan bordering Iran.
Zehra believed it was wrong to blame only the ISI.
"In some abduction cases, particularly in the troubled FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), it could be militants, it could be the Taliban. In the case of Baluchistan, there are groups (separatist) that could be responsible for the killings of the Punjabis. It could not be blamed on the ISI," said Zehra.
Social activist Nazish Brohi told Deutsche Welle that Pakistani's central government had little control over the military and its intelligence agencies. However, she opined, "they (the government) need to trust the people to say that their hands are tied and that they are not calling the shots."
Rights group Human Rights Watch has recently expressed its dissatisfaction over the findings of a judicial commission investigating the murder of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist, who was killed last year in May.
Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and for Italian news agency Adnkronos International, was found missing from Islamabad on the evening of May 29, 2011. His maimed body was discovered on May 31, 130 kilometers southeast of the capital. A judicial commission set to investigate Shahzad's murder dismissed ISI's exclusive involvement in Shahzad's kidnapping and assassination and concluded that the state, militant groups linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda and unnamed "foreign actors", could all be behind Shahzad's death.
"The commission's failure to get to the bottom of the Shahzad killing illustrates the ability of the ISI to remain beyond the reach of Pakistan's criminal justice system," said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, in a statement.
"The commission appeared fearful of confronting the ISI over Shahzad's death," said Adams. "Shahzad had made it clear to Human Rights Watch that should he be killed, the ISI should be considered the principal suspect. He had not indicated he was afraid of being killed by militant groups or anybody else."
Brohi also said she was disappointed with the findings.
"It seems like nobody killed Shahzad. The findings are very weak. It is also alarming because if you look at the role of the judiciary these days, it increasingly wants to take on the role of an investigative body. In this case, sadly, it has very little to show for it," said Brohi.
She said "it was very clear from the indications that there is a definitive signal of the involvement of the agencies."
Civilian supremacy versus military hegemony
Human rights organizations in Pakistan have long demanded that the ISI and other military intelligence agencies be reined in as a necessary step to strengthen civilian democracy in Pakistan, which has been either directly or indirectly ruled by the military since its inception.
Human Rights Watch's Asia Director, Brad Adams, believed "the ISI needs to stop acting as a state within a state." He said "the ISI abuses will only stop if it is subject to the rule of law, civilian oversight, and public accountability. It is the government's duty to insist on such accountability and the military's duty to submit to it."
Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Darren Mara