In court's crosshairs, Pakistan's military refuses to produce prisoners

ISLAMABAD — In a court battle testing the impunity long enjoyed by Pakistan's intelligence service, the Pakistani military said Thursday that it wouldn't bring forward seven men who were mysteriously kidnapped from prison in 2010 — allegedly by intelligence agents — because they were in extremely poor health.

By rebuffing the Supreme Court's demand to produce the men, the Pakistani military gave new ammunition to critics who long have contended that the powerful spy agency that it leads, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, secretly holds and abuses prisoners. Four other men kidnapped in the same incident have turned up dead in recent months.

None of the 11 men who disappeared from the Adiala high-security prison in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in May 2010 have been charged with any crime. The families have asked the court for their release, and the ensuing legal showdown has for the first time opened a window onto the inner workings of the ISI and another spy agency, Military Intelligence, which are believed to have imprisoned and tortured hundreds of Pakistanis.

"This is a historical case. It is the first time the ISI has confessed to holding people," said Amina Janjua, the chair of Defense of Human Rights, a group that campaigns for Pakistan's missing persons.

The case also is testing the objectivity of the activist high court, which has been widely accused of pursuing a legal campaign against President Asif Ali Zardari and his government, an agenda that has played into the hands of the military. Critics say the Supreme Court has been soft on the military, but this case has brought the military-led spy agencies under unprecedented scrutiny.

Since the restoration of democracy in 2008, a three-way battle for power between the executive, the judiciary and the military has largely paralyzed government — to the frustration of Washington, which wants Pakistan to focus on fighting extremism, helping to end the war in Afghanistan and fixing its sickly economy.

More than 1,000 people are alleged to have disappeared into the hands of intelligence agencies since 2001, of whom about 500 are still missing. In the western province of Baluchistan, dumped bodies of dissidents and separatist sympathizers turn up regularly.

The four prisoners whose bodies recently were found were cases of "clear-cut murder. Nothing else," Janjua said. "They did not die natural deaths. Their bodies were blue and black."

Of the seven remaining detainees, four are being held at the Lady Reading Hospital in the city of Peshawar and three others at a facility in Parachinar, in the tribal areas close to the Afghan border. The men, all deeply religious Muslims, apparently were terror suspects, although no charges were ever brought against them in court.

Abdul Qudoos, a brother of three of the detainees, said he believed that they were being slowly poisoned. Last month his family received a phone call telling them to pick up the body of one of his brothers, Abdur Saboor, 29, from an ambulance parked outside Peshawar.

"His arms were as thin as sugarcane. Just a skull and skin left of him," Qudoos said in an interview.

In a written statement to the court, lawyers for the ISI, Military Intelligence and military headquarters tried to safeguard the agencies' secrets. They told the court that the detainees being held at the hospital were not in condition to be produced. Those held in Parachinar could be brought only after the court reviews a "highly confidential" letter from the "internment authority."

"The allegation of poison and torture, contained in the petition (from the families) is without any shred of evidence," the military's response said. "These are wild, diabolical and vicious allegations against a superior agency of the country."

The military claims that the men were abducted by people pretending to be intelligence agents and that it only took them into custody during anti-Taliban operations in the tribal area.

"These men were in good condition" when they disappeared, said Inam ul Rahiem, a lawyer for the families. "How did their health deteriorate?"

The families' legal team is scheduled to press the court on Friday to hold the intelligence agencies in contempt for not producing the detainees.

According to the families, all 11 men were picked up by intelligence agents in late 2007 and early 2008 and abducted by the spy agencies a second time from the jail itself. The men all were devout Muslims and many were associated in some way with Islamabad's radical Red Mosque. Qudoos' brothers used to supply the mosque with copies of the Quran and other religious texts.

"The lies of the agencies have been exposed but they keep telling them," Qudoos said. "We need intelligence agencies, but not to pick up people, torture them and kill them. If they have issues with people, they should be brought before the courts."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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