Civilians struggle to check Pakistan army's power

AP News
Posted: Oct 02, 2012 3:25 AM
Civilians struggle to check Pakistan army's power

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The footage was startling: A group of what appeared to be Pakistani soldiers gunning down several blindfolded men in a forested area. As the clips circulated online and the U.S. threatened to cut aid, Pakistan's army chief promised a full investigation and punishment for any wrongdoers.

Two years later: Silence.

What has the inquiry found? The army won't say. Was anyone punished? Not a word. Some rights activists question whether an investigation even took place.

Pakistan has spent nearly five years under civilian rule, an unusually long stretch for a 65-year-old country prone to military coups. But as the firing squad footage and several other prominent scandals suggest, the army remains largely unwilling to hold itself accountable to the public. This despite some pressure from more active media and judiciary and despite hopes that the military would rethink its ways after the humiliation it suffered following the unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The army's lack of transparency and resistance to civilian oversight could cripple Pakistan's transition to a healthy democracy, something the United States says the country needs. But the Americans can't protest too much: Washington needs the Pakistani army's cooperation as the war in Afghanistan winds down and it already struggles to balance a strained relationship as it presses the army to root out anti-U.S. insurgents hiding in Pakistan.

"It's important to understand that generally the Pakistani military is very careful about not hurting its own people," especially as they fight Islamists trying to overthrow the state, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent Pakistani defense analyst. Most ordinary Pakistanis feel powerless to take on the army, and when it comes to reining in the men in uniform, the still-weak civilian government "can't do anything," she said.

The two video clips that spawned the supposed inquiry fueled allegations that the military carried out numerous extrajudicial killings in the Swat Valley during a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in 2009. Bloodied corpses of suspected militants were found dumped on the streets for months after the army retook the valley from the Taliban. The army denied those killings.

The grainy footage, which came to light in September 2010, is believed to have been recorded in Swat. A nearly six-minute clip shows men in Pakistani military uniforms lining up six blindfolded men in civilian clothes, then shooting them. After a voice says "finish them one by one," one apparent soldier walks over to the men and shoots them again. The other, 53-second clip shows only the executions.

On Oct. 8, 2010, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced an inquiry into the matter. He noted the probe would consider if the footage was even real, but also said, "It is not expected of a professional army to engage in excesses against the people whom it is trying to guard against the scourge of terrorism."

In the two years since, The Associated Press has repeatedly asked the army about the status of the probe. At most, the answer has been that it's under way. Attempts to get army comment for this story led nowhere.

Other cases further illustrate the difficulty in holding the army accountable.

A year before the execution videos surfaced, a clip on YouTube and Facebook appeared to show Pakistani soldiers beating and whipping four militant suspects. The army promised to investigate but has never released any findings.

In mid-September, Kayani announced that the military would take over the investigation and prosecution of three retired generals accused in a financial scam that was being probed by a parliamentary committee. The three were "recalled" into the army, apparently so they could be shielded from civilian courts.

And then there's the "Abbottabad commission," the panel tasked with finding out what bin Laden was doing in Pakistan and what led to the May 2011 U.S. raid that killed him. The panel's creation was hailed because it was technically independent of the military. But its report has been repeatedly delayed, and if it is ever released, many doubt anyone in the security establishment will be held to account — at least not in public.

The United States is legally bound to cut aid to foreign military units that violate human rights, and American officials have said the execution clips prompted a cutoff of funding to multiple Pakistani army units whose identities are classified.

That doesn't mean net funding for Pakistan goes down, however — the money can simply be shifted to other Pakistani units. The nuclear-armed country is of such strategic importance that American leaders say it is difficult to withhold funds. In total, Pakistan receives roughly $1 billion in economic aid and $1 billion in military assistance each year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, who spearheaded the legislation that imposed the human rights requirement on foreign aid, is said to have had trouble getting answers on the execution videos. The senator "has repeatedly requested information from representatives of the Pakistani government on the status of the promised investigation of this war crime, but so far has received nothing," said his spokesman, David Carle.

Ali Dayan Hasan, head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, is not convinced the military even pursued a proper probe.

Pakistan's civilian government, led by the party of President Asif Ali Zardari, remains far too weak to take the army head on over accountability. At this point, the government is focused on surviving, and it has to tread carefully around the generals.

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Analysts said army leaders are reluctant to be more transparent to civilian authorities largely because of concerns about morale amid the fight against militants, who are themselves notorious for ruthless tactics. The Pakistani military says thousands of its soldiers have died in the conflict since 2001. It's entirely possible soldiers are punished in private for abuses, but to publicize that would, again, undermine morale.

The army also doesn't necessarily trust the civilian institutions. The military often prefers to hold alleged insurgents indefinitely, even secretly, for fear civilian courts, which rarely convict terrorism suspects, would set them free.

Still, a more assertive judiciary and a more technologically advanced media landscape are bringing signs of change.

In August last year, an anti-terror court sentenced to death a soldier who shot and killed an unarmed youth as he begged for mercy in the southern port city of Karachi. The incident was caught on videotape and repeatedly broadcast by TV stations, triggering enough public anger the military could not ignore it.

In January, a government-appointed commission released a report on the death of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, who was killed after telling friends he was threatened by the country's premier intelligence agency, the military-led Inter-Services Intelligence.

The report said it did not have enough evidence to blame the ISI in the killing but that the agency should be more "law-abiding." The mere issuing of a report was seen by rights advocates as a mini-victory.

The judiciary has also increasingly demanded the army and intelligence agencies account for suspects allegedly held in secret, believed to number in the thousands. Some have even been freed due to the court's demands, though no one in the security establishment is known to have been punished.

Sustained protests by victims' relatives helped in pushing for the release of some of the missing, said Hasan.

But so far there isn't a widespread public outcry for accountability from the military as the fight against Islamic militants continues.

Even liberals "don't want too much focus on human rights in a situation like Swat," said Babar Sattar, a legal expert. "There is that sense that if you put too much focus on those issues it'll make it harder for the army to fight."


Associated Press Writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report from Washington, D.C. AP writer Nahal Toosi can be reached at