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Pakistani Military In Legal Hot Water

Pakistan's ISI chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha (left) and Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at a June 2011 meeting
Pakistan's ISI chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha (left) and Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at a June 2011 meeting
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan's chief justice, has sharply rebuked the country's military. On March 1, he reportedly told a lawyer representing the military's intelligence agencies to tell his bosses to stop considering themselves above the law and constitution.

The chief justice was hearing a court case about what are referred to as the "missing," a misnomer for hundreds of people indefinitely detained by the military's intelligence agencies. The case is among the handful of cases where the military's perceived dominance of the Pakistani political system is apparently being challenged.

The Supreme Court has also revived another case involving the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), allegedly bankrolling an opposition election win in the 1990s. The case was inexplicably shelved for nearly 13 years. It is regarded by many as a can of worms, and if the charges are proved it might cost many senior politicians their careers.

Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, is the most prominent among those accused of receiving cash payments from the ISI to form a coalition alliance against the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990. Sharif now casts himself as an ardent opponent of the military's intervention in politics.

Critics, however, are not convinced that the court hearings represent a paradigm shift in Pakistani power politics where the judiciary validated military coups. Past Pakistani judges even created a local version of the "doctrine of necessity" by justifying extralegal steps in what were seen as extraordinary circumstances. Senior Pakistani lawyers privately say that the Supreme Court's moves appear to balance months of tussle with the civilian government over a 2007 amnesty law it turned down in 2009. The court is still hearing a contempt case against the Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for failing to act on its decision in the case. Supporters of the governing Pakistan People's Party accused it of working in cohorts with the military to undermine their government.

Legal experts say that while the hearings are a welcome development, decisions in these cases will decide whether Pakistan moves toward true democracy or the military continues to orchestrate politics in the country.

-- Abubakar Siddique