ISLAMABAD _ The Pakistani Supreme Court on Monday forced authorities to produce seven men who had vanished from prison two years ago, into the apparent custody of the military's main spy agency, as the court continued to assert its authority against both the country's powerful army and its weak civilian government.
The case involving prisoners allegedly held by the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, marks a rare legal action against the spy agency. The missing men hobbled into court, having been brought in ambulances to Islamabad from their places of detention by security officials, including ISI agents.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry presides over a fiercely activist Supreme Court, but its usual target has been the government. In a separate case, the court on Monday formally charged Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with contempt of court over his refusal to pursue a dormant corruption case against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.
It is widely believed that both the army and the Supreme Court are working to remove Zardari or his government, a clash of institutions that has crippled administration in Pakistan. The indictment of Gilani had been anticipated for weeks, but if convicted he likely would be barred from office.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
However, the case of the prisoners also has captivated attention because Pakistanis have complained for decades that the ISI operates above the law, making hundreds of people disappear and interfering in domestic politics. New York-based Human Rights Watch said recently that "ISI abuses will only stop if it is subject to the rule of law, civilian oversight, and public accountability."
The prisoner case involves 11 men who disappeared from the Adiala high-security prison in Rawalpindi in May 2010. None have been charged with any crime, but four turned up dead in recent months. The families of the other seven petitioned the court for their release.
The men, emaciated, bewildered and finding it difficult to stand or to talk, were brought in handcuffs to the court, where they had an emotional reunion with their children and other relatives. One of the prisoners, a ragged-looking man named Abdul Majid, suffers from kidney problems and carried a urine-filled colostomy bag into the courtroom.
The men remain in custody, but although the court ruled that they must be held by civilian authorities until the case is decided, they still were still led away by a phalanx of plainclothes intelligence agents _ including some who admitted privately to McClatchy that they worked for the ISI.
After the hearing, as he was being taken away, Majid broke down in tears.
"Either take our life or let us go," pleaded Majid, who said that he had not received medical care for his illness and had been getting little food.
"They picked me up from my shop. I was a businessman," said Majid, 23, as security officials tried to usher him away from media. "No one has ever explained to us why we are being held."
Majid was more fortunate than one of his two brothers who were picked up at the same time, a man named Abdur Saboor. Last month, their mother received a call to pick up Saboor's body, which had been dumped in an ambulance parked outside the northwestern city of Peshawar.
The men were among a group that first went missing in late 2007 and early 2008, apparently picked up by intelligence agents on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Eleven of them later ended up in the civilian jail in Rawalpindi, but following court orders to release them, they were abducted a second time, allegedly by the ISI.
"These boys are not terrorists," said Ghulam Murtaza, the father of another detainee, Mazhar ul Haq, 35. "My son says he was being kept in a basement, where he sleeps on the floor, and it is very cold. All of them have lost so much weight."
Chaudhry, the chief justice, ordered a report from the ISI and the Military Intelligence spy agency explaining the legal justification for the men's imprisonment. The ISI denies abducting or holding the men, blasting the allegations in a previous court statement as "wild, diabolic and vicious."
However, the circumstances of their detention have remained unclear. The civilian government told the court that it took custody of the men only two weeks ago and couldn't say which authorities were holding them previously.
The case could open a window into the workings of the military-run spy agencies in a nation that's been ruled for half its existence by the military, with democracy only restored four years ago.
Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of Parliament, said that it should be counted as progress that the clash of institutions was being decided in the courts, not through a coup.
"If this had been the old Pakistan, this government would have been gone by now," Amir said. (Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.