ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani mother has decided to take on the country’s all-powerful spy agency.
In an effort to get back two of her sons, who are allegedly in the custody of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and to hold the agency accountable for the death of her third son, Rohifa has taken it to court, casting an unusual spotlight on an organization that wields tremendous power in world affairs.
Rohifa has petitioned the court on behalf of 11 men, seven who remain detained and four others who are now believed to be dead. After being acquitted by an anti-terrorism court in 2010, the 11 men were abducted as soon as they stepped out of the high-security Adiala jail in Rawalpindi.
The seven remaining men had been scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court on Friday, but they never showed, angering the families. The court then adjourned until Monday.
“I’m desperate. They’re not subject to any law. They’re free,” said Tariq Asad, one of the defense lawyers, of the intelligence agencies.
Three of the seven are now in a facility in Parachinar in Pakistan’s tribal areas near Afghanistan. The four others, including Rohifa’s sons, have been admitted to the Lady Reading Hospital in the western city of Peshawar.
“They should give them back alive. At least they’re still breathing now,” said Rohifa, who added that she had little faith they would survive if they remain in the hospital or in the custody of the intelligence agency. The families believe the men are being slowly poisoned.
For Rohifa’s sons, the ordeal began in 2007. Policemen had picked up Abdul Majid, 24, Abdul Basit, 26 and Abdul Saboor, 29, from their printing shop for Koran and religious books in the eastern city of Lahore. Their mother was never informed about their whereabouts.
And then, after being acquitted of terrorism charges and released from jail in 2010, they were again immediately detained. They were allegedly involved in high-profile attacks on Pakistan’s military headquarters and other defense installations killing several army personnel.
Abdul Qudoos, another of Rohifa’s sons, met his brothers once in what he said was a dark underground cell in the western city of Peshawar.
“They were lying on the ground while chained from the ankles to their middles with iron bars and their hands were cuffed,” he remembered.
Then, last month, Qudoos got a call to pick up the body of his brother Saboor.
“He was covered with a cloth, full of lice, and there were insect bites on his body everywhere. It took me three minutes to recognize him. Then I saw the prayer mark on his forehead and I knew it was him,” he said.
On another occasion, Qudoos met his other brothers, who are now in the hospital. Their looks shocked him.
“They can’t walk. They’re as thin as sugar cane,” he said.
The fate of the men drew unprecedented criticism from some Pakistani lawmakers.
“I want to say to the army chief: It is a national army not a mafia,” said opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. “Such kinds of activities will tarnish the image of the Pakistani Army.”
Rohifa’s case is just one of at least two targeting the spy agency, which seem to be Chief Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry’s response to criticism from the public that the Supreme Court was only targeting the civilian government and not the military.
“There has been so much criticism that [the court] was being political. I think they’re trying to wash that away,” said Talat Masood, a political analyst.
On Feb. 29, Chaudhry said, the Supreme Court will also hear a 15-year old corruption case that accuses the ISI of distributing 140 million rupees ($1.4 million) to right-wing politicians in order to form a block against the ruling party during the 1990s.
“We hope and pray that it’s not going to be delayed again,” said Ali Ashgar Khan, the son of the now 91-year old petitioner.
The cases are also set against a backdrop of growing frustration with the army and intelligence agencies among average Pakistanis. A series of embarrassing events have tarnished the military’s otherwise strong reputation in Pakistan. First there was the secret US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden last May. Then there was the humiliating militant siege of a naval base in Karachi and finally a NATO attack on a border post that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers.
While there have been other cases lodged against the spy agency in the past accusing it of illegally detaining prisoners, human rights group say Rohifa’s case is different.
“This is an historic case. It is the first time they have confessed that these bodies are in their custody and handed them over,” said Amina Janjua, director of the local nongovernmental organization, Defense of Human Rights.
Janjua’s organization has registered more than a thousand missing persons in the last four years, about 400 of whom have been released. About 400 others, including her husband, are still missing. Another 100, she said, have been found, but remain in custody.
Janjua’s work has been complicated by a presidential order, signed last year, that gives the army free reign to detain and try suspected militants for an indefinite period. The order was in a response to the low conviction rate of suspected militants in the regular courts.
Terrorist attacks have killed thousands of Pakistani citizens and security personnel in recent years. Maximum sentences are life imprisonment or the death penalty.
“We understand that there is an atmosphere of terrorism and challenges facing Pakistan, but they should not violate citizens’ rights,” Janjua said.
Janjua fears for the seven detainees still in custody.
“I’m afraid that their lives are now much more in danger. They’re witnesses of huge human rights violations. Living people can speak,” she said.
Raja Irshad, a lawyer for the intelligence agencies, said the men involved with Rohifa’s case were not in his client’s custody and that there was no evidence of torture or poisoning.
“First it has to be determined whether they have been tortured or poisoned. Everything has to be decided on the basis of evidence,” he said.
Analysts are careful not to predict any major outcomes.
“Let’s see how they go about it. This is going to determine the impartiality of the court. This could be a litmus test,” Masood said.
For Rohifa, the Supreme Court is her only hope.
“We have hope, but these agency people are liars,” she said. “This morning they said they would come. Six hours later they said they won’t. It breaks my heart.”