The Power of the ISI!

The News, July 13, 2006
Holding the bull by the horns
Farhatullah Babar

This newspaper and its reporter Ansar Abbasi deserve to be complimented for being the first to break the story of how a serving army officer belonging to an intelligence agency thrashed an 80-year-old twice decorated war-hero, tore the clothes off his daughter-in-law who resisted, and then kidnapped them along with some teenagers. After beating them blue they were abandoned at a deserted place. The victims' fault was that they were related to the teenagers involved in a playground brawl between a few lads that also reportedly included the son of a senior officer of the agency. Had it not been for the reporter we would not have known the new meaning lent to the concepts of bravery, courage and chivalry.

The critical lesson to be learnt and the issue to be addressed is that the ISI has gotten out of control and needs to be reined in and its officers and men held accountable. That a carrot-and-stick approach will be used to hush up the matter is almost certain. Following the uproar an internal inquiry has been ordered but the police have not registered an FIR. According to the report a senior officer of the agency who ordered the raid visited, along with his wife, the house of the retired brigadier to tender an apology. But are these measures enough to deter bullies in the future?

People know the fate that befalls official inquiries. Remember the initial internal inquiries ordered into the tragic Tando Bahawal incident in May 1992. It was claimed that those killed were enemy agents who were about to blow up a powerhouse. But thanks to the media that refused to buy the story, it was finally discovered that the nine villagers including old men and women had actually been killed in a cold blooded operation, conducted by an army officer, with the help of his men, at the behest of a local landlord who had an eye on the villagers' agricultural land.

Concerned citizens must therefore demand a judicial and parliamentary probe into the incident, the proceedings of which must be held in public. A sad part of the story is that so far the focus of attention and official reaction is only a former senior military officer but not the other civilian victims. The official machinery came into action and an inquiry ordered after the former brigadier made an impassioned plea to the army chief to "restore my dignity as an ex-army officer". But the response to the civilian victim's plea: "Is this going to be another investigation of the elite people only, where no ordinary citizen like me is allowed to present his case?" has been met with stony silence. Is there no dignity of the civilian victim that needs to be restored?

This must therefore be made into a test case. The intelligence agency must be challenged. The findings of the inquiry must be made public. The perpetrators of the crime must be identified and prosecuted under the law and punished. The agency has never been amenable to controls by, or accountability to, civilian institutions and civilian leadership. It must not be allowed to remain out of the ambit of law anymore. Voices have been raised in the past in the Senate demanding a select committee of the parliament to oversee the intelligence agencies, as is the norm in other democratic countries. The time has come to heed those voices.

The legal status of the ISI came into sharp focus in 1999 in a case involving the detention of a Pakistani editor. A writ filed against his kidnapping was dismissed by a judge of the Lahore High Court because "the court had no jurisdiction over a military institution". This, despite the fact that the head of the ISI, is hired and fired, by the civilian prime minister. The case of Air Marshal Asghar Khan in the Supreme Court, alleging that the ISI stole public money to illegally interfere in domestic politics in 1990-91, has also been pending before the apex court for more than a decade. One hopes that the Islamabad incident will persuade the court to take up the Asghar Khan case to decide upon the legal and constitutional anomalies in the working of the ISI. Let cynics not be allowed to claim that the judges who have taken oath under military governments and endorsed constitutional orders passed by the army chief are reluctant to question illegalities committed by the military and its institutions.

The editor's kidnapping case in 1999 had provided an opportunity to sort out the legal and constitutional issues involved in the working of intelligence agencies. But the government of the day soon buckled, and instead of allowing the court to settle the issues, it transferred the detainee from the intelligence agency to police custody, simultaneously lodging a complaint against him under anti-terrorism laws.

On the day this newspaper first broke the story, the Australian Supreme Court released a transcript of the evidence of an Australian convicted of receiving funds from Al Qaeda. The convict Joseph Thomas known as "Jihad Jack" arrested in Pakistan in March 2003 had been investigated in Pakistan for five months. Although it was a closed-door trial the judge thought that releasing part of the evidence was important. According to the testimony made public the Pakistani intelligence operatives investigating him repeatedly asserted: "We are outside the law" and "no one can hear you scream".

The list of its acts of omission and commission is long and painful. A full inquiry is needed in the organisation and in its working. In June 1997 the Supreme Court upon hearing the Asghar Khan case appeared to take up the case to logical conclusion and asked the attorney-general whether the government still wanted to keep the political cell in the ISI. The AG promised to revert to the court after seeking instructions of the government but has not reverted till today.

Frustrated with their lawlessness the former prime minister Ms Bhutto bemoaned in a newspaper interview in January 2001: "The security apparatus has run amok". Her warning was not heeded and she was dubbed a security risk. Not long thereafter in March 2003 Pakistanis were shocked when a former US ambassador in Pakistan testified before the Senate about briefings of 'substantial' involvement of an intelligence agency in the drug business on the Pak-Afghan border.

Let no one muzzle the screams nor claim status above the law. It is time for the civil society and the judiciary to hold the bull by the horns.

The writer is a former senator belonging to the PPP. Email: drkhshan@isb.