ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's most powerful intelligence agency held seven suspected militants sought by the Supreme Court for more than a year and a half without sufficient evidence to try them, the agency's lawyer said Monday.
The admission, made in a court hearing, was likely to fuel concerns about the conduct of Pakistan's security establishment in its battle against a domestic Taliban insurgency during the past several years. Rights organizations have accused Pakistani security forces of holding scores of suspected militants without charging them.
Raja Irshad, a lawyer for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which is controlled by the army, said he told the Supreme Court that officials held the men because they were convinced they were "dangerous people and involved in terrorism."
The seven men were among 11 suspected militants captured in connection with a 2007 suicide bombing against ISI personnel and a rocket attack a year later against an air force base. An anti-terrorism court ordered them to be freed in May 2010, but they were picked up again near the capital, Islamabad.
Four died in custody under mysterious circumstances. The ISI produced the seven surviving men in court last February in response to a judicial order prompted by their relatives, who were looking for them. Two of the men were too weak to walk. Another wore a urine bag, suggesting a kidney ailment. In a meeting with their families on the court premises, they complained of harsh treatment during their detention.
In a rare move, an unnamed "security official" issued a four-page statement at the time through the state-run news agency listing the accusations against the men. The statement — presumably released by the ISI — alleged the 11 were "hard-core terrorists" and that "the sympathizers of terrorists have forgotten the miseries" of the families of those killed in the 2007 and 2008 attacks.
The ISI handed the seven men over to the administration of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region in January 2012, said Irshad, the agency's lawyer. The court has summoned the tribal region's chief official to appear Tuesday to explain why the men were held without sufficient evidence, said Tariq Asad, the lawyer for the seven men.
Amnesty International claimed in a report in December that the Pakistani military regularly holds people without charges and tortures or mistreats them in custody. The London-based group said some detainees do not survive and their bodies are returned to their families, or dumped in remote areas.
The Pakistani military called the report "a pack of lies."
Also Monday, the group that oversees Pakistan's elections lashed out at the government, claiming it was trying to rig the parliamentary vote expected this spring by giving people jobs and reportedly redirecting money for development projects to a discretionary fund used by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.
The Election Commission, which is appointed by the president and a parliamentary committee, said in a press release that the actions constituted "pre-poll rigging" and must end.
The statement was likely prompted by the recent protest in Islamabad by firebrand Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. The cleric led tens of thousands of his supporters in four days of protests in the center of the capital last week, demanding electoral reform and the removal of the government.
One of his demands was the dissolution of the Election Commission, which he claimed was biased because it was appointed by political leaders. Qadri ended his protest after he reached an agreement with the government. The declaration said the government would discuss the composition of the commission with the cleric, but did not commit to its dissolution.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report.