Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ordered the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to close a notorious cell that focused on monitoring internal politics, in a direct challenge to the ISI’s ability to operate as a “state within a state”.
In a judgement that puts pressure on the agency to be more accountable to the prime minister, the country’s highest court declared its political cell “‘void ab initio” (null and void from the start).
The ruling revolved around a petition that alleges the intelligence cell directly manipulated the 1990 general elections, known as the “Asghar Khan” petition. This document alleges the distribution of funds by former chief of army staff Mirza Aslam Beg and ex-ISI chief Asad Durrani to politicians during the 1990 elections in order to prevent the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from coming to power.
Despite repeated orders by the court, the Ministry of Defense also failed to produce a notification establishing the ISI’s political wing that was issued some 39 years ago.
“If there exists no notification, then how can the [political] wing of the agency operate?” Supreme Court Justice Jawwad S Khawaja asked in late June.
At the court, Commander Shahbaz, representing the ministry, said that it did not have a copy of the notification, adding that former director-general of the ISI Asad Durrani had “said that a friend of his had shown him a copy of it”.
The court’s ban is the latest in a series of judicial challenges to the ISI since judicial powers were restored in 2008, following the sacking of 60 members by President Pervez Musharraf a year earlier. In February, the Supreme Court reprimanded the directors general of the ISI and Military Intelligence (MI) for the custodial killings of four civilians. It also ordered them to immediately produce seven remaining suspects being grilled for their alleged role in several acts of terrorism, especially the 2009 fidayeen (suicide) attack on the General Headquarters of the army in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
A three-judge bench of the court, comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Justice Khilji Arif Hussain and Justice Jawwad S Khawaja also last Wednesday accused the paramilitary Frontier Corps of involvement in the disappearance of a third of all the missing persons in the country’s restive southwest.
The international image of the ISI has plummeted in recent months over allegations over its links with the Afghan Taliban and that it knew Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan before the May 2, 2011, operation in Abbottabad by the United States’ Marine Forces that killed the al-Qaeda chief.
Questions have increasingly been raised about how the ISI actually functions, with the agency facing daily criticism from journalists, international human-rights organizations and United States officials over its opaque dealings.
The ISI is Pakistan’s supreme intelligence agency and, owing to its influence, some international experts describe it as a “a state within a state”. The institution was formed shortly after the independence of Pakistan in 1947, along with the the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the MI. The MI’s poor performance in sharing intelligence among the army, navy and air Force during the Indo-Pakistan’s 1947 war led to the creation of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 1948.
In late 1950s, then president Ayub Khan tasked the ISI and MI with monitoring politicians’ activities, with a view to prolonging his military rule.
The ISI was reorganized in 1966 after intelligence failures in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 and again reformed in 1969. Ayub Khan entrusted the ISI with responsibility for the collection of internal political intelligence in East Pakistan. Later on, during the Baloch nationalist revolt in the country’s southwest during the mid-1970s, the ISI was tasked with performing similar internal intelligence gathering operations.
It has also launched several joint operations with various intelligence agencies around the world on the basis of the intelligence-sharing contracts and agreements, particularly with America’s Central Intelligence Agency in the “war against terror”.
Is it unclear if the Supreme Court’s order will impact on the ISI’s huge monitoring network, which includes telephone tapping wings, Internet monitoring and press divisions. It is certain, however, that Pakistan’s military and the ISI will not happily accept being denied access to the corridors of power. ISI activities extend too far into the country’s politics.