ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The Pakistani military is holding thousands of
suspected militants in indefinite detention, arguing that the nation's
dysfunctional civilian justice system cannot be trusted to prevent them
from walking free, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
The majority of the detainees have been held for nearly a year and
have been allowed no contact with family members, lawyers or
humanitarian groups, the Pakistani officials human rights advocates
Top U.S. officials have raised concern over the detentions with the
Pakistani leadership, fearing the issue could undermine American
domestic and congressional support for the U.S.-backed
counterinsurgency campaign here and jeopardize billions of dollars in
Pakistani officials say they are aware of the problem, but that
there is no clear solution: The nation lacks a military justice system,
and even civilian officials concede their courts are not up to the task
of handling such a large volume of complex terrorism cases. For most of
the detainees, there is little forensic evidence, and witnesses are
likely to be too scared to testify.
The dilemma plays directly into the Taliban's strategy. The group has gained a following in Pakistan
by capitalizing on the weakness of the civilian government, promising
the sort of swift justice that is often absent from the slow-moving and
Pakistan's struggle over how to handle the detainees echoes a debate
playing out in the United States over the remaining prisoners being
held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It also reflects the tensions between security and civil liberties that
confront U.S. allies as they fight their own battles against Islamic
"We don't have a system like Egypt,
where you send a man to court and three days later he's executed," said
Malik Naveed Khan, the top police official in northwestern Pakistan.
"The judges decide the punishment, and they have to look at the
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the military is
"extremely concerned" the detainees will be allowed to go free if they
are turned over to the civilian government. More than 300 suspected
militants who had been detained in the military's 2007 operation in the
Swat Valley were later released under the terms of a peace deal. Many
subsequently returned to the Taliban, Abbas said, making the army's
task harder when it again rolled into Swat last spring.
Most of the current detainees were picked up during that operation,
which succeeded in eliminating a key Taliban sanctuary, though many
fighters simply fled. Pakistan also detained suspected militants during
its offensive in South Waziristan last fall, and in other operations in
adjacent tribal areas.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch said it had documented as
many as 300 extrajudicial killings by the military both during and
after the Swat operation. The military has denied that charge. Ali
Dayan Hasan, the New York-based organization's senior South Asia
analyst, said that without proper documentation of the detainees, more
could be tortured and killed.
"What this is an argument for is the law of the jungle," Hasan said.
"This is a gross abuse of human rights, and very bad counter-terror
There has been no public accounting of who has been detained, so the
exact number of prisoners is not known. U.S. officials estimate the
total at 2,500, a figure that roughly corresponds to Pakistani
estimates, though some outside analysts here say the actual number is
higher. The International Committee of the Red Cross has not been given
access to any detainees in northwest Pakistan since last year. They are
being held in special military detention centers across the region,
though the exact locations have not been made public.
Pakistan officially describes its military operations in the
northwest as a law enforcement action, rather than armed conflict,
which permits it to avoid following international protocol for the
treatment of prisoners of war.
U.S. officials say they worry the detentions will further inflame
the Pakistani public at a time when the government here needs popular
support for its offensives.
"They're treating the local population with a heavy hand, and
they're alienating them," said an Obama administration official who
spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the
issue. "As a result, it's sort of a classic case going back to Vietnam;
it [risks] actually creating more sympathy for the extremists."
After years of international criticism over secret U.S. prison
sites, the official said that U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has made
improving the detention system one of the central features of his new
counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan, where the military has long called the shots while the
civilian government languished, has not yet recognized the issue's
importance, the official said.
U.S. officials worry, too, that by holding thousands of people
without trial, Pakistan risks running afoul of the Leahy Amendment,
which requires recipients of U.S. military assistance to abide by
international human rights laws and standards.
The United States has provided Pakistan with nearly $18 billion in
military and development aid since 2002, with the administration
requesting an additional $3 billion for 2011. "Obviously, you don't
want the Pakistanis to do anything to complicate a relationship that
requires support from Congress," the U.S. official said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the issue of
detentions with Pakistani officials during her visit here last October,
but little has changed since then.
The United States has not pushed for a specific solution but has
instead encouraged Pakistan to begin a process for handling the
detainees within the law, U.S. officials said. Although Pakistan has in
the past handed high-level detainees over to the United States for
interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities, Pakistani
officials say the current crop of detainees are all suspected of crimes
against the Pakistani state and will be dealt with domestically.
Pakistani security officials said the detainees were overwhelmingly
Pakistani citizens but did include some foreigners, including Uzbeks,
Chechens and Arabs. Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda have used Pakistan's
remote western border with Afghanistan as a sanctuary in recent years.
Some detainees are considered leading insurgent commanders, while
the vast majority are foot soldiers. The men are being questioned by
investigators, and are classified into one of three categories: black
for hard-core militants, gray for their supporters and white for
civilians not involved in the insurgency, said Khan, the police chief
for northwestern Pakistan Those in the latter category are released as
the investigations proceed, officials say.
Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former Pakistani interior minister, said the
lack of a plan for handling the detainees reflects Pakistan's broader
deficiencies when it comes to fighting extremist groups. There is no
coordination between military and civilian agencies, he said, and no
system for collecting and sharing evidence. "Without evidence, what are
they going to do?" he said.
In many cases, the answer is for the police to torture detainees
into confessing, said Rafaqat Bashir Awan, a defense lawyer at the
anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi.
Khan, the police chief for northwestern Pakistan, said his force
lacks microscopes, facilities for analyzing DNA and other technology
essential to modern law enforcement. He said he has asked for U.S.
assistance but has not been given an answer.
Ultimately, he said, he expects the detainees to be tried in
civilian courts -- he just doesn't know when. "I don't see any other
option," he said. "But it will take time."
DeYoung reported from Islamabad and Washington.