ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's military spy agencies face unprecedented public scrutiny when the country's Supreme Court on Monday begins hearing charges that operatives murdered suspected militants in custody.
The court in late February also will take up charges that military spies bribed politicians to overthrow two elected governments in the 1990s.
The cases will take Pakistani politics into uncharted territory by holding to account under civilian laws the military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate — virtually a parallel state since 1977, when the military staged the third of four coups.
The military has ruled Pakistan directly for half its 64-year history and continues to violate the constitution and national laws with impunity because the elected politicians aren't powerful enough to rein it in, politicians, analysts and human rights activists said.
The Supreme Court will receive written explanations from the ISI and military intelligence, the army's spy wing, for the deaths of four civilians while in military custody during the second half of last year. The four were suspected of being linked to the Taliban.
The bodies of three of the four dead men were dumped at the side of a road in the northwest city of Peshawar, lawyers representing the men's families told the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The victims included three brothers, partners in a family publishing business in the eastern city of Lahore, who printed copies of the Quran and books on Islamic jurisprudence for the Red Mosque in Islamabad while it was under the control of militants in 2007.
More than 400 militants and seminary students were killed when security forces stormed the Red Mosque in 2007. The incident sparked a Taliban insurgency in northwest Pakistan that has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Pakistanis.
Previously, intelligence operatives left the bodies of other suspects who allegedly died of torture during interrogation at a morgue for the families to collect for burial, the lawyers said.
The brothers had been acquitted of terrorism charges by a High Court, but went missing while awaiting release from jail in Rawalpindi, a city bordering Islamabad that houses army headquarters.
But lawyers representing the military have acknowledged, under questioning by the Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, that the men had been taken into custody by intelligence operatives and recharged under military laws that aren't usually applicable to civilians.
If the Supreme Court finds any military officers were involved in the murder of the four men, they could face the death penalty under the same military laws.
Politicians and human rights activists say the Supreme Court hearing has set an important precedent for hundreds of other so-called "missing persons" cases.
The government has acknowledged some 400 such cases of Pakistanis kidnapped by military intelligence operatives on suspicion of involvement in two insurgencies — one by the Taliban in the northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the other by secular separatists in the western province of Baluchistan bordering Iran.
Politicians based in Baluchistan said that the corpses of suspected insurgents have turned up since 2009 with such regularity that the public there could tell who had killed them by the location of fatal wounds.
"If it's a bullet in the forehead, that's personal enmity. If it's a bullet in the temple or heart, that the intelligence agencies," said Hasil Bizenjo, a veteran Baluchistan politician opposed to the insurgency.
The politicians and activists put the number of missing persons at well over 1,000.
A veteran human rights lawyer told McClatchy that the ISI had created and funded human rights organizations to "represent" missing persons in its custody.
"I have, while visiting clients at ISI facilities, seen these supposed rights activists trying to convince the detainees to admit the charges against them and cooperate with the authorities," said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect clients still in custody.
Such admissions of guilt enabled the ISI to formally charge the detainees and secure guilty verdicts from the courts.
The Supreme Court has been hearing missing persons cases since 2009, but notices issued to military intelligence authorities to testify largely had been stonewalled or completely ignored.
However, the court's decision last month to investigate charges which characterized the Pakistani government as treacherously plotting with the U.S. to avert a fifth military coup last May raised questions about its neutrality.
Public pressure has subsequently built for the Supreme Court also to take up cases against the military, including charges that it bribed politicians and journalists to overthrow elected governments in 1990 and 1996.
It will hear those charges in late February.
The Pakistani Senate last week unanimously passed a resolution calling for Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan as a military dictator from 1999 to 2008, to be tried for treason.
He also faces murder charges for the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former two-time prime minister and wife of Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president.
Bhutto headed both the governments overthrown by military conspiracy in the 1990s.
Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, on Friday said Musharraf would "certainly" be arrested and prosecuted if he returned to Pakistan from the United Kingdom, where he has been based since being forced to resign as president in September 2008.
Musharraf last week called off plans to return to Pakistan by the end of January to contest elections due to be held in the next 12 months.
None of Pakistan three previous military rulers have ever been tried, because they obtained the cover of rulings from the Supreme Court when it was weak.
The court asserted its independence in February 2007 after Musharraf sacked the chief justice, who is widely credited for his downfall.
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page
McClatchy Newspapers 2012