By Mubasher Bukhari
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - In a rare challenge to Pakistan's powerful generals, the country's Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the military should stop interfering in politics.
In connection with a case dating back to 1996 in which a retired air marshal filed a petition against the army for sponsoring a political alliance, Chief Supreme Court Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry said military intelligence agencies must stay away from politics.
"Such organizations have no role to play in the political activities/politics, for formulation or destabilization of political governments," he said in the ruling.
"Nor can they facilitate or show favor to a political party or group of political parties or politicians individually in any manner which may lead to his or her success."
It is not clear whether the decision would reduce the military's vast power.
But the move could create tensions between the increasingly assertive Supreme Court and the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 65-year history through coups or from behind the scenes.
The long-running showdown between the judiciary and the U.S.-backed government has fuelled instability in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country with a fragile economy that has been battered by a Taliban insurgency.
In the late 1980s, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was accused of establishing a political cell that worked with the presidency to distribute money to hand-picked politicians in a bid to get them elected.
"Any Election Cell/Political Cell in Presidency or ISI or MI (Military Intelligence) or within their formations shall be abolished immediately," said the Supreme Court ruling.
In unusually strong language, it went on to say: "Their acts have brought a bad name to Pakistan and its armed forces as well as secret agencies."
It was also not clear how the Supreme Court planned to ensure the military would abide by its decision. It called on the federal government to take necessary steps under the constitution against retired generals named in the case.
Pakistan's government has little sway over generals. The military is one of the biggest in the world and has vast financial might, to the tune of an $11 billion, according to some estimates.
The ISI has been described as a state within a state and is believed to have vast influence over politicians.
Successive Pakistani governments have been too preoccupied by their often strained relationship with the military to tackle a range of challenges plaguing the South Asian nation, from chronic power cuts to poverty to a flawed education system.
Chaudhry has made a name for himself by going after some of the most powerful figures in Pakistan and raising sensitive issues such as the disappearance of political activists and insurgents who have angered the military.
In June, Chaudhry made his boldest move by disqualifying prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani as punishment for his repeated refusal to obey court orders to re-activate a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The defiant chief justice is facing a growing backlash from those who fear his aggressiveness could undermine Pakistan's young democracy.
Appointed in 2005, Chaudhry confronted then military leader Pervez Musharraf, who removed him from office after he opposed plans to extend the general's term in office.
Zardari's government was forced to reinstate him after an outpouring of street protests by lawyers.
Since then, he has portrayed himself as a champion of justice in a country where the elite is seen as self-serving while the military enjoys vast privileges.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)