Pakistan holding thousands in indefinite detention, officials say

By Griff Witte and Karen DeYoung
Thursday, April 22, 2010

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 and human rights advocates said.

Top U.S. officials have raised concern about the detentions with Pakistani leaders, fearing that the issue could undermine American domestic and congressional support for the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan and jeopardize billions of dollars in U.S. assistance.

Pakistani officials say that they are aware of the problem but that there is no clear solution: Pakistan has no applicable military justice system, and even civilian officials concede that their courts are not up to the task of handling such a large volume of complex terrorism cases. There is little forensic evidence in most cases, and witnesses are likely to be too scared to testify.

The quandary 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 overburdened courts.

Pakistan's struggle over how to handle the detainees echoes a debate in the United States over the remaining prisoners being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It also reflects the tensions between security and civil liberties that confront U.S. allies as they battle Islamist extremists.

"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 evidence."

The United States has not pushed for a specific solution but has encouraged Pakistan to begin handling the detainees within the law, U.S. officials said. Although Pakistan has in the past sent high-level detainees to the United States for interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities, Pakistani officials say all the current detainees are suspected of crimes against the Pakistani state and will be dealt with domestically.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, said the military is "extremely concerned" that 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 a peace deal. Many 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 eliminated 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.

This month, Human Rights Watch said it had documented as many as 300 extrajudicial killings by the military 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 counterterror strategy."

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