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Pakistan's three-headed monster

A political turf war between Pakistan's military, government and judiciary is crippling the country.

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Pakistani security personnel stand guard outside the Supreme Court building during a hearing in Islamabad on Jan. 19, 2012. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s story has long been dominated by a power struggle between its two main characters: the country’s mighty military and its weak civilian government. Now, as if the story weren’t sordid enough, the rise of Pakistan’s judiciary has introduced a third character, one that analysts worry could be highly unpredictable.

Its power was on display this week when the country's Supreme Court formally charged Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with contempt of court, a move that could eventually lead to the leader’s dismissal.

And then, not to appear unfair, the court took on the military as well. For the first time in the country’s history, Pakistan's Supreme Court forced the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), the country’s formidable spy organization, to bring before the court seven prisoners it is accused of detaining illegally.

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Proponents and critics raise points from both ends regarding the surge of the judiciary's power.

A stronger judiciary, one that is willing to hold the government and the military accountable, could be good for Pakistan, observers said. But many of them remain wary, unsure whether the court’s intentions are honorable or dubious.

Gilani, flanked by ministers, governors, coalition partners and other supporters, appeared surprisingly calm during his visit to the court on Monday.

Outside the imposing courthouse, helicopters hovered and riot police guarded the entrance.

Gilani is charged with contempt for not writing a letter to the Swiss authorities asking them to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, who as head of the ruling political party, is also his boss. Gilani pleaded not guilty, arguing that Zardari enjos immunity as president.

Constitutional experts say that if convicted, Gilani could appeal. And as a last resort, the president could pardon him. Gilani said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera however that, if convicted, he would automatically lose his parliamentary seat and thereby his post as prime minister.

It would be a major shake-up for the civilian government, which has so far survived multiple confrontations with the military and the judiciary and as a result, and against all odds, has become the longest-serving civilian administration since the 1970s.

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The Supreme Court also heard the case of eleven prisoners in custody of ISI – four of whom died in mysterious circumstances. The court had asked the shadowy spy agency to produce the seven remaining prisoners before the court twice last week, but they never showed.

The court persisted, and officials at ISI finally relented on Monday. The prisoners looked frail, with dark circles around their eyes. A number of them needed someone’s support to walk, and one held a catheter.

The chief justice ordered hospital treatment for all seven. The next hearing is scheduled for March 1 and will seek to clarify, among other things, how the four died and whether or not any of the prisoners received a fair trial.

The seven men had an emotional reunion with family members who they had seen only a few times since they were picked up by the spy agency almost five years ago.

“Prove our crime! Prove our crime!” screamed Mohammad Shafiq, one of the detained prisoners, as his brother held him. Asked whether he thought justice would be served, he shook his head and tears ran down his face. “Why not?”

The two cases seem to indicate that the country’s judiciary is asserting its independence and, perhaps, a new found bravura that began to develop during the rule of former President Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistani judges had in the past largely been lackeys of the government and the military. But when Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry for “abuse of office” in 2007, a march toward greater independence began.

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Musharraf’s move was widely seen as an attempt to preempt a court decision that would have invalidated his reelection. Thousands of emotional protesters, led by prominent lawyers, took to the streets. Never before had Pakistan’s judiciary enjoyed such popular support.

In 2008, after the election of the current government and a year of prodding, Chaudhry was finally reinstated.

Since then, Pakistan’s judiciary has become more aggressive, drawing its power in part from widespread dissatisfaction with the performance