ISLAMABAD — In a case that shines a harsh light on the interference in the country's politics of Pakistan's army and its premier spy agency, the Supreme Court on Friday heard an admission by a former spymaster that he distributed secret funds to opposition politicians in elections in 1990.
The high court's decision to revive an almost forgotten case — which seeks to hold a former head of the military's feared Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency and a former army chief accountable for manipulating the election results in favor of an Islamist coalition — has far-reaching implications even though the events happened more than 20 years ago.
Pakistan's activist Supreme Court has surprised many in recent weeks with its red-blooded assault on the workings of the ISI in a series of cases that could challenge the armed forces' longstanding impunity from the rule of law.
In another case before the court, the ISI is accused of abducting and hiding 11 suspected terrorists — four of whom eventually turned up dead. In a hearing earlier this month, a furious Chief Justice Ifitkhar Chaudhry asked the ISI's lawyer, "Who gave you the right to hound people?"
Later this month, the court is scheduled to begin hearings on the violent chaos in the western province of Baluchistan, where the military is accused of eliminating hundreds of political activists and imposing a virtual state of martial law. The worsening crisis was the subject of a congressional hearing in Washington last month.
"The manipulative power of the ISI is diminished now. Pakistan has changed," said Ayaz Amir, a maverick opposition member of Parliament and newspaper columnist. "The media is there, the judiciary is there. Politics is not so easily manipulated as in the past."
In recent years, Chaudhry has aggressively taken on the government, especially over old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari, drawing criticism that the court was pursuing a political agenda. But the new cases involving the military suggest that Chaudhry intends to hold accountable people in power more broadly — carving out a powerful role for the judiciary in the process.
The election case, which had been on hold since 1997, not only exposes the ISI's intervention in politics, but it also implicates the current opposition leader and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, allegedly one of the politicians who received the payments. In the 1990 elections, Sharif's coalition of Islamist parties — formed and funded by the ISI — defeated the pro-Western incumbent prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
Many believe that the ISI's role in politics continues — including, in recent years, its efforts to manufacture a political party to support former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down after nine years in power in 2008 and restored democracy.
On Friday, the court heard the former head of the ISI, retired three-star Gen. Asad Durrani, testify that in 1990 he was instructed by the then-army chief to distribute 140 million rupees ($1.6 million today) to the political opposition. Durrani said he understood that the money had come from businessmen.
Durrani told the court, "It is true that the orders did come from the army chief," Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg. But, he went on, "as a general of the Pakistan army, I could have said no. ... That decision was mine. I take full responsibility."
A day earlier, the court had heard from Younis Habib, the former head of a government-owned bank, that he was forced by Beg and the then-president of the country to produce 1.5 billion rupees ($18 million) from the bank's coffers for political interference efforts — a much larger sum than previously had been known. Of that, some $4 million went to politicians either through Durrani or indirectly to representatives of the politicians.
It remained unclear what happened to the rest of the money, which Habib said was "invested" in property and other assets.
"I was told I had to arrange the funds by hook or by crook," Habib testified. When he hesitated, he was arrested.
The election case was lodged in 1996 by a private citizen, Asghar Khan, who had served as the head of the air force until his retirement in 1965, and then ran a minor political party.
In an interview with McClatchy, Khan said: "Since 1975, we've not had one fair election. There's no chance of it in the future unless people are held accountable. The country cannot survive like this.
"Army officers are under oath to obey lawful commands. They are not under obligation to obey unlawful commands."
Beg, in an affidavit filed Friday, described the testimony of Habib, the banker, as a "bundle of lies." Beg admitted his involvement in the distribution of cash, but he defended himself by saying that he was only acting on the orders of the then-president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
The case was heard the same day that a new ISI chief was appointed, ending speculation that the controversial incumbent, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who's due to retire March 18, would be given another extension of his term.
His replacement is Lt. Gen. Zahir ul Islam, a reputedly tough general and former ISI officer who currently is the top military commander in the southern city of Karachi. The position is key to the United States, which relies on ISI cooperation in its battle against militants in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pasha's tenure was marked by a series of stunning intelligence failures, according to his critics — most obviously the discovery by the CIA that Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan. Privately, government officials accused Pasha of interfering in politics.
The power to appoint the ISI chief rests with the government, although in effect the choice is made by the military leadership. Pasha was considered a close ally of army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, but Islam may prove to be a more independent operator.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.