The scandal ‘Mehrangate’ is called as Mr Younas Habib, the central character of the case and he was in Habib Bank back in 1990. The story of ‘Mehrangate’ started on June 11, 1996 when Gen (R) Naseerullah Babar, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Minister for Interior, while speaking on the floor of the house in the National Assembly, accused the ISI of defrauding the general elections by distributing money among the right wing politicians to make an election alliance and thus rig the elections to defeat the PPP.
He alleged that former chief of army staff Gen (Retd.) Mirza Aslam Beg withdrew an amount of Rs.140 million from Mehran Bank, and disbursed the amount through the ISI chief, Lt-General Asad Durrani to a selection of anti-PPP politicians and thus rig the elections in favour of the ISI-tailored IJI and Mian Nawaz Sharif.
Following this, the brave and indefatigable retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan wrote a letter to the then Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Justice Sajjad Hassan Shah, who converted his letter with attached affidavit of Asad Durrani into a human rights petition under section 184(3).
The petition was, however, stalled after Justice Shah’s unceremonious ouster in November 1997 when members of Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League stormed the Supreme Court and later got the CJ ousted with the help of his Brother Judges.
His successor, Justice Ajmal Mian remained completely mum over the case. So much so that his book “A Judge Speaks Out” does not even talk about Asghar Khan or his petition. All eight Chief Justices that followed him since then, never dared to open the case.
Meanwhile, the indomitable Asghar Khan kept writing letters to almost all of these incoming Chief Justices including the current one.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan, in an unprecedented move, has recently started hearing a long pending case, human rights petition no. HR 19/96, Air Marshal Asghar Khan vs. retired chief of army staff General Mirza Muhammad Aslam Beg, the former Inter Services Intelligence chief retired Lt-General Asad Durrani and Younis Habib of Habib Bank (later associated with Mehran Bank fraud scandal).
The case was started in 1996, saw few hearings and then was put in the Supreme Court’s case-mortuary for 16 years.
Younas Habib, on March 9, categorically stated before the court that he was coerced into ‘arranging’ the money (through bank fraud), by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Army Chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg.
Of Rs 1.48 billion that he ‘arranged’, around Rs. 340 million were disbursed to different politicians, while rest of the money was deposited in different bank accounts belonging to ISI, whose numbers were provided by General Aslam Beg. General Beg, who denied the charges against him in Habib’s statement, had earlier submitted a statement in the court in 1997, whereby he had admitted disbursal of money to the politicians.
In extraordinary scenes at the Supreme Court a visibly embarrassed Asad Durrani said that in 1990 he was ordered by then Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg to distribute millions of dollars to politicians and parties to help defeat the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) government of Benazir Bhutto.
On 8th March, Younus Habib, a disgraced former banker who had acted as a middleman, claimed the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, had ordered 340m rupees (£10m) be spent on the plan.
On 9th March, a former ISI chief retired General Asad Durrani has been forced to admit to spending millions of military dollars to influence an election during a humiliating court hearing that is being seen as a remarkable display of power from the country’s top judges.
Durrani was careful not to implicate the ISI, saying he had only followed orders from Beg. “I found no election or political cell in the ISI,” he said. “But political work could always be done by designated officers and any intelligence agency can undertake this task.”
Although Pakistanis have long known the outline of the scandal, Durrani’s court testimony was a remarkable shaming for a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a military outfit regarded as so powerful that it is sometimes described as a “state within a state”.
With a parliamentary election due within a year, the episode is of more than historical interest.
The action helped to topple a government then controlled by the PPP, which is once again in power. Figures still active in Pakistani politics benefited greatly from the ISI’s largesse, including Nawaz Sharif, a conservative politician who went on to win the election.
The embarrassing details of the case came as the ISI announced a successor to Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who will step down as head of the agency later this month.
General Zahir-ul Islam’s background will be closely scrutinised, not least by Washington which has long been convinced ISI agents provide the Taliban-led insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan with vital support.
Another sign of the army’s weakened position in Pakistan was the court theatrics involving General Beg. The former army chief’s contempt for proceedings was evident in a written denial that sarcastically claimed his “hat-trick” of appearances before the court was “an honour”.
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s chief justice, reacted furiously demanding an apology which was grudgingly written on a slip of paper by General Beg and presented to the court. Another of the three judges hearing the case warned General Beg that the court would not tolerate anyone trying to “play with our dignity”.
Such high-profile appearances are yet another coup for Pakistan’s increasingly assertive Supreme Court.
Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani newspaper columnist, said the Supreme Court case caps a “terrible year for the security structure”, coming as it does after a number of humiliating incidents including the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May last year.
“It compounds that sense of siege that some may be feeling,” Almeida said. “We are now seeing things that were once only whispered in Pakistan screamed through the electronic media. It is a remarkable case, but can the influence of an entire security establishment unravel over this particular case?” Almeida said. “That is very unlikely.”
The missing prisoner’s case is being presided over by a three member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan of which the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is a part.
On March 1st, the Supreme Court expressed its dissatisfaction over the report submitted by the intelligence agencies of the country. The report that was submitted to the Supreme Court of Pakistan was concerning a missing prisoner’s case. The dissatisfaction expressed by the Supreme Court of the country was because it deemed the report as unsatisfactory and inadequate.
The apex court of the country communicated to the Military Intelligence (MI) as well as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agencies in the following words: “You need to take this out of your mind that you intelligence agencies are superior and others are inferior.”
The Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry addressed the MI as well as the ISI in the following words: “Who gave you the right to hound people? You are so insensitive to the human loss that the families of the missing persons have suffered lately because of you. This is a big allegation against you (ISI and MI); you abduct people and after some days, their abandoned bodies surface.”
And last month it further embarrassed the ISI by demanding a group of “disappeared persons” – alleged terrorists who had vanished for years into military detention centres – be brought to the court.
But despite the colourful legal proceedings in Islamabad, few people are predicting a complete revolution among Pakistan’s power brokers.
Finally the Supreme Court is also pursuing the prime minister, Yusaf Raza Gilani, over claims that he is deliberately blocking an alleged corruption case against his political ally President Asif Ali Zardari. The Court ordered the Prime Minister to open the corruption case against President Zardari in Switzerland by March 21.
However, the Prime Minister reportedly said on 15th March that he would rather go to jail than obey the order and ask Switzerland to re-open the graft case against the President Thus the conflict between the highest judiciary and the executive in Pakistan is most visibly seen to save the President. Let us wait and see more drama in Pakistan.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.