'ISI meddling': A likely crisis intensifying in Pakistan

Pakistan‘s Supreme Court announced on Monday its intention to investigate accusations of meddling by the nation’s intelligence agencies in judicial matters, as detailed in a notable letter from six high court judges.

This development, following considerable public uproar and criticism, marks a potential pivotal moment in the civil-military dynamics within the country.

Driving the news:

The backdrop of this controversy is steeped in the long-standing tension between Pakistan’s judiciary and its powerful military establishment. On March 26, six judges from the Islamabad High Court (IHC) made an unprecedented move by writing a letter to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), expressing worries about what they termed as “blatant interference” by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s leading military intelligence agency, in legal affairs. This exceptional action revealed the underlying tensions within the judiciary regarding the military’s impact on legal proceedings.

The six judges who signed the March 25 dated letter include Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, Justice Tariq Mehmood Jahangiri, Justice Babar Sattar, Justice Sardar Ejaz Ishaq Khan, Justice Arbab Muhammad Tahir, and Justice Saman Rafat Imtiaz.

In their letter, the judges detailed several instances of alleged interference, including pressure on judges through abduction and torture of relatives and the installation of surveillance equipment in their homes. The revelations contained within the letter were nothing short of explosive, suggesting not just isolated incidents but a systemic attempt to sway judicial outcomes.

The response to the judges’ letter has been a litany of actions and reactions. The government’s decision to appoint a one-member commission headed by former Chief Supreme Court Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, who later declined the role, was met with skepticism from various quarters, including the opposition Pakistan.

Tehreek-e-Insaf and the legal community. They argued for the Supreme Court to employ its suo motu powers to address the allegations directly, leading to the establishment of a seven-member bench to hear the case.

Why it matters?

The letter from the judges has brought attention to underlying problems within Pakistan’s judiciary, accusing interference that includes surveillance inside judges’ residences and the abduction and torture of their family members. These grave allegations against the intelligence agencies, particularly the ISI, highlight a possible crisis concerning judicial autonomy and public confidence in the legal framework.

The core question arising from this saga is whether the judges’ bold step will lead to a significant shift in the civil-military relationship or if it will merely be another chapter in the ongoing saga of power struggles, with no real change in the status quo.

Historical context:

The historical backdrop provides valuable insights. Past episodes of friction between the judiciary and the military, like the dismissal of former IHC Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, highlight the difficulties judges encounter in preserving judicial autonomy amidst external influences. Siddiqui’s situation, referenced by the IHC judges in their communication, serves as a clear example of the repercussions of directly challenging the military’s sway.

Public reactions and political maneuverings in the wake of the letter’s publication have followed a familiar pattern, with divisions along party lines and a mix of condemnation and support for the judges. The PTI’s call for an increase in the number of judges hearing the case reflects the political undercurrents that permeate this issue.

What they are saying?

  • Gohar Khan, PTI chief said, “We support the decision by the court but the number of judges should be increased.”
  • Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Qazi Faez Isa said, “Meddling by the executive in the affairs and ‘judicial workings of judges will not be tolerated’ come what may.”
  • IHC Judges in the letter: The judges detail “brazen meddling” and instances of intimidation, including efforts to influence the outcome of cases and the abduction and torture of relatives.

Next step:

The question is, will this naturally lead to a lawyers’ movement, like the one in 2007-08 that contributed to the ouster of military dictator Pervez Musharraf?

According to Arifa Noor, a columnist in Dawn, this isn’t a scenario where civilian groups unite against a tyrannical ruler, leading us to believe we’re on the brink of significant transformation. Instead, we’re engaged in a prolonged struggle, driven by the efforts of small factions and solitary endeavors, without an imminent conclusion.

“M0re than a decade after Musharraf’s departure, we have understood that it is not easy to bring down the edifice of a structure put into place over decades, through a year or two of agitation and street protests. Such victories, in hindsight, appear to be a mirage.,” Noor said in her column in the Dawn.

(With inputs from TOI and agencies)

William Murphy

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