As expected, last week too, the attorney general turned up at the hearing of the Asghar Khan petition without the notification that enabled the formation of the ISI’s political cell. After the court has itself ruled that there is no longer any ambiguity about the role of intelligence agencies in Pakistani politics and when it is a fact as clear as daylight that the ISI’s political cell was set up by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1975, how could the notification have disappeared off the surface of the earth? Or, as the chief justice himself asked on Thursday, when the political cell has been active for decades and up to all sorts of mischief, including distributing millions of rupees of public money among anti-PPP politicians to manipulate the 1990 elections, how is it possible that the notification that enabled this cell to be set up in the first place is nowhere to be found? It’s not with the ministry of defence. The ministry of interior has no clue where it disappeared. The Cabinet Division has also come up with zilch. Nargis Sethi has no answers either. So where does one turn to – the intelligence agency itself perhaps? Does the ISI have a copy and should the court summon one from it?
The larger point here is that, when the Asghar Khan case was first revived for hearing before the Supreme Court on February 29, many looked upon it as a litmus test of the Supreme Court’s resolve to extend accountability to even the godliest altars of power in Pakistan. But as each hearing goes by, it looks like the hope for meaningful results will be dashed by those adamant not to allow the truth to come out. At this point then, in order to let proceedings move forward, we suggest that since the court has already ruled in two separate orders that money was indeed distributed by the ISI to influence the 1990 election and also that the ISI cannot legally operate a political cell, it is time for the process of real accountability to begin. We already have several definitive statements from the court that the non-uniformed aren’t the only ones accountable for their transgressions and that the political forays of the uniformed must stop. It is thus time to move on to punishing those who clearly transgressed all constitutional limits and sentence all those who willfully acted outside the ambit of the law and constitution in the discharge of, what they claim, were official duties. This is a chance for the court to draw red lines and not allow victory to those standing in the way of this case reaching its logical conclusion. In the recent past, the court has rightfully suspended the national assembly memberships of parliamentarians for breaking the law. It has even sent a prime minister home for placing his parochial political interests before his allegiance to the constitution. Good precedents have been set with all these rulings. It is now time to take to task top army officers who knowingly violated their oath of office and defiled the constitution, and in this way set a precedent against the political workings of the ISI and the army. Most importantly, such a precedent will also serve to save the institution itself from the illegal actions of a few officers.