Court tells army to stay out of politics

LAHORE: Pakistani policemen scuffle with Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party activists outside the anti-terrorist court on the arrival of their leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi during a hearing in Lahore on February 4, 2019, following last year’s violent protest in opposition to the acquittal of a Christian woman from blasphemy charges. —AFP

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Supreme Court rebuked the powerful military and intelligence agencies yesterday, calling for them to uphold free speech and stay out of politics in a country ruled by the generals for nearly half its existence. The unusually strong criticism was issued in a judgment released criticizing the role of the intelligence agencies in anti-blasphemy protests which paralyzed the capital Islamabad for several weeks in 2017.

“If any personnel of the Armed Forces indulges in any form of politicking or tries to manipulate the media he undermines the integrity and professionalism of the Armed Forces,” the judgment, posted on the Supreme Court website, stated. Pakistan’s Constitution “emphatically prohibits” members of the armed forces from “engaging in any kind of political activity”, it added, ordering the government and the chiefs of the army, air force and navy to take action against anyone found violating their oaths to uphold the document.

The 2017 protests were led by a then-little known Islamist group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), and were only dispersed after violent clashes led to a military-brokered deal which forced the resignation of the federal law minister. Viral videos showing what appeared to be soldiers handing out cash to protesters helped fuel speculation the demonstrators were backed by the military as it sought to put pressure on the then-ruling party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

The judgment also spelled out curbs on free speech, singling out the intelligence agencies for a stern warning. “All intelligence agencies… and the (military’s media wing) must not exceed their respective mandates. They cannot curtail the freedom of speech and expression,” the judgment said. “Those who resort to such tactics under the mistaken belief that they serve some higher goal delude themselves,” it continued.

Local media have complained about pressure in the run-up to a general election in July to self-censor in favor of the eventual victor, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan. Activists and bloggers speaking out against the state and military have also complained of repression. The Committee to Protect Journalists said the army had “quietly but effectively, set restrictions on reporting” in a report released September last year. Pakistan’s courts have cautioned the military establishment against meddling before-and paid a price. An Islamabad High Court judge was ousted last year after he publicly accused the country’s top intelligence agency of manipulating judicial decisions to influence the general election. – AFP