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Pakistan torture case shows how courts are working to claim power

The case of 11 detainees, who had been acquitted, illustrates how the Supreme Court is attempting to challenge Pakistan's dominant military and spy agency.

February 18, 2012|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Pakistani police escort detainees, seen draped in a shawl, after a Monday appearance at the Supreme Court in Islamabad.
Pakistani police escort detainees, seen draped in a shawl, after a Monday… (Farooq Naeem / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Before Abdul Majeed was swept away by intelligence agents a year and a half ago, he weighed 154 pounds. Now he weighs 88.

Shuffling out of Courtroom 1 at Pakistan's Supreme Court clutching a catheterized urine bag in his hand, he sobbed as he described his secret detention. His only food every day was a small serving of boiled lentils. Lack of water left him severely dehydrated. He says he never saw a doctor, not even when his kidneys began to malfunction.

"All of these health problems happened to me while I was in custody," he said.

Majeed, 24, is one of 11 men hauled away by intelligence agents after being acquitted of charges connected to terrorist attacks on military installations. Four of the men died in custody. The remaining seven appeared in the Supreme Court last week, after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry ordered the country's powerful spy agency to bring them in.


FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article said Amina Janjua's husband disappeared in 2005 and has turned up again. It should have said he never turned up again.

Pakistan's military and intelligence community, the dominant power since the country's independence in 1947, had long been above the reach of the judiciary. In recent weeks, however, the Supreme Court has staked out its claim on a more powerful role in Pakistani society, setting its sights on a civilian government widely seen as corrupt and ineffective, and also on the country's security establishment.

Still unclear is how far the court is willing to intensify its scrutiny of the military and intelligence agencies, and whether the court risks damaging blow-back from the security establishment. What is apparent, however, is the court's intent to significantly raise its profile.

"It is determined to establish itself as a player to be feared and respected," Cyril Almeida, a columnist for the English-language Pakistani newspaper Dawn, wrote last week.

For years, human rights activists have claimed that Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and other security agencies in Pakistan routinely abduct men without legal justification. Sometimes the bodies of men who had disappeared months earlier are found dumped on roadsides or in ditches.

Neither Pakistan's weak civilian government nor its judiciary had ever taken any serious steps to look into the security agencies' involvement in the disappearances. The Supreme Court's aggressive investigation of the circumstances behind the detention of the 11 men marks a radical shift that human rights leaders hope will bring scrutiny of disappearance cases that they say number in the hundreds.

"This is a turning point in the disappearance issue," says Amina Janjua, a human rights activist who has been championing the cause of the 11 men. Her husband disappeared in 2005 and has never turned up again. "Enough is enough. Every week there are 10 or 15 new cases. It's high time."

The exact number of men abducted by Pakistani intelligence and security bodies is unknown. A report by Human Rights Watch last year chronicled the cases of 45 men who disappeared in Baluchistan, a province where the military has been grappling with Baluch nationalists for years.

In all of the cases that the New York-based group investigated, detainees had been tortured, many subjected to beatings or prolonged food and sleep deprivation. The group, which investigated disappearances mostly from 2009 and '10, estimates that hundreds of Baluch men have been abducted by security personnel since 2005.

In the case of the 11 detainees, the Supreme Court on Monday forced the ISI to bring into court the seven surviving men to assess their physical condition. Afterward, the justices ordered that the men undergo medical examinations, and demanded an explanation for the deaths of the other four.

The justices also have ordered the ISI to prove that the men were legally detained and explain what happened to them during their detention. An attorney representing the ISI, Raja Muhammad Irshad, declined to comment on the case. But the ISI previously has said the men were detained in accordance with a law that allows the military to hold terrorism suspects or anyone deemed a danger to the state. According to Pakistani state media, military officials say that the 11 men were terrorists involved in the planning of attacks on military facilities in 2007 and '08.

If the court believes the men were illegally detained or were tortured, theoretically, ISI agents involved in the detentions could be held criminally liable, said Tariq Asad, the lawyer for the detainees. The court would also release the men from custody.

Asad added, however, that criminal sanctions against the ISI were unlikely. "Nobody has ever dared to do that." Asad said he is only seeking the release of the men.

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