Court activism sign of power shift in Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — A newly assertive Supreme Court is taking on the Pakistani government and army in a series of high-profile cases, signaling a power shift in a country vital to U.S. efforts to fight Islamist militants and negotiate peace in Afghanistan.

The jury is still out on the implications.

Some believe the court’s actions are part of a necessary, if messy, rebalancing in a country that has long been dominated by the army or seen chaotic periods of rule by corrupt politicians. Others view the court as just another unaccountable institution undermining the elected government.

The U.S. believes a stable, civilian-led democracy in Pakistan is in its interests. But the diffusion of power could make it even more difficult for Washington to prod the country to do its bidding, especially given rampant anti-American sentiment.

The army has been the principal point of contact for the U.S. in the decade since it resuscitated ties with Pakistan to help with the Afghan war. While the army remains the strongest Pakistani institution, recent events indicate it has ceded some of that power to the Supreme Court and the country’s civilian leaders.

“Welcome to the new Pakistan, where power centers are diffuse, outcomes less certain and no grand conspirator to make it all come together, or fall apart, at the appropriate time,” columnist Cyril Almeida wrote recently in Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper.

The Supreme Court’s activism was on full display Monday.

The court charged Pakistan’s prime minister with contempt for refusing to reopen an old corruption case against the president. Later, it ordered two military intelligence agencies to explain why they held seven suspected militants in allegedly harsh conditions for 18 months without charges.

Some government supporters have accused the court of acting on the army’s behalf to topple the country’s civilian leaders, especially in a case probing whether the government sent a memo to Washington last year asking for help in stopping a supposed military coup.

But no evidence has surfaced to support that allegation, and the court’s moves against the military seem to conflict with the theory. The judges have also taken up a case pending for 15 years in which the army’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, is accused of funneling money to political parties to influence national elections.

“There may be a confluence of interests between the court, the army and the political opposition, but the court’s agenda is also institutional: It is determined to establish itself as a player to be feared and respected,” said Almeida.

The court’s actions against the army are a significant turnaround. For much of Pakistan’s nearly 65-year history, the court has been pliant to the army’s demands and validated three coups carried out by the generals.

The current chief justice was on the court in 2000 when it endorsed a coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He has pledged the judges will never take such action again, but it’s unclear whether the court has the will or authority to challenge the army if it fights back.

The Pakistani media have largely applauded the court’s activism against the army, which has also had its power checked by a more active media and the demands of a bloody war against a domestic Taliban insurgency.

The court’s pressure on the civilian government has been more controversial.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could be sent to prison and lose his job if convicted of contempt, while the memo scandal is seen as a threat to President Asif Ali Zardari.

The chief justice has tussled with Zardari in the past, and some have alleged the cases against the government are partially driven by a personal vendetta against the president.

“I think the Supreme Court is going too far,” said Pakistani political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “In the past, it was the army that would remove the civilian government, and now it’s the Supreme Court, another unelected institution trying to overwhelm elected leadership.”

Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president based on recommendations from a judicial commission working in conjunction with parliament. The judges can serve until the age of 65 and can be removed only by a judicial council.

The cases have distracted the government from dealing with pressing issues facing the country, including an ailing economy and its battle against the Pakistani Taliban.

Moeed Yusuf, an expert on Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace, said the jockeying for power between the army, Supreme Court and civilian government was expected given the shifting political landscape and could be beneficial to the country in the long run.

“No country has managed to bypass several phases of such recalibration before they have arrived at a consensual, democratic and accountable system where institutions finally are able to synergize rather than compete endlessly,” Yusuf wrote in a column in Dawn.

The political turmoil has likely complicated U.S. efforts to repair its troubled relations with Pakistan and get the country to focus on helping negotiate peace with the Afghan Taliban, with whom Islamabad has historical ties.

U.S. attempts to enlist Pakistan’s cooperation could get even more difficult as power is carved up among the various actors, said Rizvi, the political analyst.

“No single group will totally dominate the system,” said Rizvi. “That will slow down decision making further in Pakistan because nobody can take full responsibility for making a decision.”