Two Supreme Court cases have dominated headlines in Pakistan recently, the judicial commission investing claims about an unsigned memo, and the ongoing hearings about decades old corruption cases against president Asif Zardari. But there is a third case set to begin next month that could have equally important ramifications for democracy and justice in Pakistan. Unlike the better-publicized cases which center on alleged acts by government officials, this lesser reported case centers on allegations of election interference by the country’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI. And the outcome of this case could significantly strengthen the democratic process.
The case, alternately known as the Asghar Khan case (after the former Air Marshal who originally filed the case in 1996) and the Mehran Bank scandal (after the bank where bribe money was kept), centers on allegations that Pakistan Army and ISI officers bribed politicians, journalists and public groups in an effort to prevent the re-election of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidates in the 1992 elections.
Both Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a former Prime Minister from the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) party recently admitted to being offered millions by the ISI to oppose the PPP, though both claim they refused the offers. But others are alleged to have accepted the bribes. According to former Director General of the ISI Asad Durrani, funds were distributed to the following groups and individuals:
Nawaz Sharif got Rs3.5 million; Mir Afzal Khan Rs10 million; Lt. Gen. Rafaqat got Rs5.6 million for distribution among journalists; Abida Hussain Rs1 million; Jamat-e-Islami Rs5 million; Altaf Hussain Qureshi Rs500,000; Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi Rs5 million (Sindh); Jam Sadiq Rs5 million (Sindh); Muhammad Khan Junejo Rs250,000 (Sindh); Pir Pagara Rs2 million (Sindh); Maulana Salahuddin Rs300,000 (Sindh); different small groups in Sindh Rs5.4 million and; Humayun Marri Rs1.5 million (Balochistan).
While such blatant electoral interference may seem shocking, such acts were not previously unheard of in Pakistan. In 2009, Gen. Hamid Gul admitted to having organized a political party, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), while he was head of the ISI in 1988 as part of his efforts to prevent the PPP from winning a decisive electoral victory. According to the former Pakistani spy chief, under his leadership the ISI actively supported politicians “who had affiliation with the GHQ (Pakistan’s military headquarters)” against the PPP.
Nor did the ISI’s political machinations end with the turn of the century. Another former ISI official, Maj. Gen. Ehtesham Zamir, told the media that he had been personally responsible for manipulating elections in 2002 at the direction of Gen. Musharraf.
After Watergate exposed possibile illegal intelligence activities by the CIA and FBI, the Senate convened the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities to investigate how American intelligence agencies were operating. Chaired by Senator Frank Church, this committee has come to be known as the Church Committee. The committee’s work resulted in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to provide guidelines and civilian oversight to American intelligence agencies.
Americans tend to think of intelligence agencies as working at the behest and under the oversight of their respective governments, as if all nations operate in a post-Church Committee environment. But the relationship between Pakistan’s civilian government and its ISI is quite different. In fact, in many ways the ISI operates not just independently of civilian oversight, but often in in direct opposition to it.
Shortly after Pakistan’s present civilian government took power in 2008, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani announced that control of the ISI would be shifted to the portfolio of the civilian Interior Ministry. It was only a matter of hours before Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told the media that no such change would occur. The civilians promptly retracted the decision.
As Pakistan prepares for its next general elections, the cloud of past electoral manipulation by the ISI continues to cast a shadow over the democratic process. Former cricketer Imran Khan’s party is openly accused by the PML-N of receiving funding and logistical support from the ISI, and Pakistani news reports suggest that “more than half of the PTI top leadership now comprises either retired military, ISI officials or those politicians known as men of the establishment”, lending to the appearance that Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is the latest in a long line of ISI front parties. Imran Khan insists that his is a populist, not an establishment party, but these rumors continue to surround his sudden rise in popularity.
Next month, Pakistan has the opportunity for its own “Church Committee” moment, ensuring that the next elections are carried out without freely and fairly, and without interference from the ISI or any other institution. With the Supreme Court, and not the parliament, overseeing hearings into the ISI’s interference in past elections, the process has the potential to avoid being politicized. The Chief Justice, who currently enjoys a high approval rating in Pakistan, has the opportunity to set clear limits for the involvement of military and intelligence agencies in political affairs, and to establish a transparent process of oversight to ensure compliance.
The Court’s guiding principle should be, as always, to allow the people of Pakistan the opportunity to choose their own leaders and define their own future without interference by any military or intelligence agency, foreign or domestic. By establishing an effective oversight regime for American intelligence agencies, the Church Committee strengthened the democratic process in the United States. Pakistan deserves no less.