ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's powerful military establishment is under rare scrutiny from the country's top court, which after a gap of 16 years has opened an investigation into allegations the army funneled money to politicians to influence elections.
The case has showcased the emerging power of the Supreme Court, which is also hearing a contempt case against the prime minister that could see him imprisoned. The court's activism has led to some uncomfortable headlines for politicians and pierced the perception of the generals' invulnerability.
But it's unclear who, if anyone, will be held accountable.
Indeed, some critics say by moving against the generals now, the court is just seeking to deflect criticism that it focuses solely on the alleged misdeeds of the elected civilian government and wants to dislodge President Ali Zardari, with the supposed nod from the military itself.
The court is also demanding answers from the army and spy agencies over the fate of hundreds of "missing" Pakistanis: suspected militants or separatists picked up and held by military authorities for months and years in secret detentions.
Analysts say the developments are part of jostling between the army, the court and the government, with each wanting to stake a claim on its sphere of influence. There seems to be a balance among them so far, with no side willing or strong enough to strike a decisive blow against another. Speculation of a military coup or the imminent ousting of the government, frequently raised in the media just a few months ago, has receded.
The court is acting on a petition filed in 1996 by former Air Vice Marshal Asghar Khan, demanding it investigate what he claimed were payments to right-wing politicians made by the army-run Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, known as the ISI. The money was to be used to ensure that the Pakistan People's Party — currently in power — would not win the 1990 general elections.
Without explaining why, the court began hearing the case last month. Testimony this week has shone a light on longtime allegations that the ISI has tried to influence elections.
On Thursday, Yunus Habib, a 90-year-old banker from the state-owned Mehran Bank, testified that he doled out the equivalent of $1.5 million in bank funds to politicians and ISI officers on the orders of then army chief Gen. Aslam Beg and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who was considered close to the army.
Some of the politicians who allegedly took the funds remain powerful political players, including opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He has denied taking any money.
On Friday, former ISI chief Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani testified that he was directed by Beg to distribute the money among politicians from the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a right-wing political alliance allegedly set up by the military establishment to counter the PPP. He said Beg told him the money had been collected from the business community in Karachi.
The alliance led by Sharif went on to win enough seats to form a coalition government.
What happens next is uncertain.
Khan's lawyer Salman Raja said he wanted criminal cases brought against all those who distributed and received the money. That would roil the political scene and likely be opposed by the army. Moreover, the nature of the evidence against them is unclear.
Pakistan's Information Minister Firdous Awan, a PPP member, urged the court to prosecute those involved.
"The court has already unveiled the faces. It shall now punish them," she said Saturday. The party is enjoying seeing the army and Sharif on the defensive.
Retired justice Tariq Mahmood said the case was a "morale booster" for the current government, but that it was unlikely anyone would be put on trial. "The government now has a chance to bring the intelligence agencies ... under its control," he said.
Political analyst Moeed Pirzada said the case put both the military and Nawaz Sharif on the defensive, which benefits the current PPP government, but would likely remain inconclusive. He said the court saw the case as "an opportunity to assert itself" following criticism by some over its pursuit of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudry has been accused of pursuing a vendetta against Zardari's PPP government. Zardari opposed Chaudry's reinstatement to the job in March 2009. The court has ordered Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani to reopen a corruption probe against Zardari.
Gilani has refused, arguing that Zardari has immunity from prosecution so long as he remains president. If found guilty of contempt for ignoring the order, Gilani could be imprisoned for six months and lose his job.