ISLAMABAD — A year ago, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the country’s military to produce seven men who’d been held in a secret prison after the civilian terrorism charges against them had collapsed. It was a dramatic scene, as the men, who hadn’t been seen in years, appeared in court – emaciated, ill, with one carrying a colostomy bag.
The shock was so great that Rohaifa Bibi, the 59-year-old mother of two of the men, suffered a heart attack that night and died.
The men, however, did not gain their freedom. Instead, they were shunted into a military internment system that is a glaring example of how Pakistan’s legal system has failed to cope with Islamic extremist violence ignited by the country’s alliance with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Poor investigations by intelligence agencies and police and low rates of convictions by the courts have prompted the military to take justice into its own hands. That’s resulted in the abduction of suspected extremists by intelligence agents, extrajudicial killings, and the trampling of due process.
On Monday, the Supreme Court again takes up the case, which originally involved 11 men who’d disappeared around late 2007 into the hands of military intelligence agents. Four, however, died in custody in unexplained circumstances. The remaining seven men are being held in “internment centers” that were established under a sweeping law passed in 2011.
In a court hearing last month, the authorities admitted holding 700 suspected militants in those centers. Human rights activists believe the actual figure is much higher.
The story of the men whose cases are now before the Supreme Court begins in November 2007, when military and police intelligence agents swooped down on the family book printing business of Rohaifa Bibi in the eastern city of Lahore, picking up three of her sons just as they were closing the shop for the night.
The deeply religious brothers printed the Quran and other Islamic books at their press and had supplied texts to Islamabad’s radical Red Mosque, which the army had stormed the previous July, killing about 100 of those inside. They and eight others were charged with involvement in multiple terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a bus carrying personnel of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency in September 2007.
But the case against them collapsed, and a court ordered them released in May 2010. Instead, intelligence agents reportedly turned up at the jail and took the 11 men away – apparently to be held at a top security jail near Rawalpindi, where Pakistan’s military is headquartered.
What had become of the men was unknown until January 2012, when Abdul Qudoos, another of Rohaifa Bibi’s sons, received a phone call, telling him to pick up the body of one of his detained brothers, Abdul Saboor, age 29. At a bus station in the northwestern city of Peshawar, Qudoos found a withered body, covered in lice, dumped inside an ambulance.
That’s when the case first came to the attention of the Supreme Court, which ordered the military to present the surviving prisoners.
“All these court proceedings are just a drama, nothing more,” Qudoos said. “We can’t understand how our brothers are still being held. But we are poor people, what can we do?”
Now the argument is whether the military can use the internment centers, which were authorized to house militants captured in operations against the Pakistan Taliban in the country’s northern tribal areas, to keep prisoners picked up in other circumstances. The 2011 law that set up the internment camps allows conviction in military-run courts on the testimony of a single soldier, and sentences include the death penalty. It included a provision incorporating any crimes committed after February 2008.
At a hearing last month, Pakistan’s attorney general, Irfan Qadir, told the Supreme Court that none of the seven remaining suspects could be freed until the end of operations in the tribal areas.
The activist chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, demanded then that the men be put on trial.
“These people cannot be kept in illegal custody for an indefinite period because it is against the constitution and basic fundamental rights,” Chaudhry said.
Tariq Asad, the lawyer for the seven men, expects the legal arguments to conclude on Monday, though when a ruling might come is uncertain.
“Since they have been kept in illegal confinement, they should be set at liberty,” said Asad. “There’s no excuse for keeping them even a single day more.”
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.