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ISI bill

July 10, 2012

FROM interference in domestic politics to enforced disappearances to the harassment of citizens on dubious premises, Inter Services Intelligence has often been accused of overreaching its domain and resisting civilian control, despite technically being answerable to the prime minister. While the agency might have decided to play a less overt part in politics in recent years, suspicions about its role linger — exacerbated by the swift shutting down of efforts to bring it under the purview of the interior ministry — and a private member’s bill that now seeks to increase civilian oversight of the ISI is a bold and welcome move. Given the sensitive nature of the issues the agency deals with, though, it cannot be treated like any other government department. So a tricky balance will have to be struck between accountability and ensuring that sensitive information, and the country’s security, are not compromised. Either too much or too little interference could render such an oversight framework ineffective.

But it is too early to tell whether the bill will survive, and there are signs of some reluctance to address the issue head-on. It provides, for example, for 30 days of detention of suspects that can be extended to 90 days and beyond. This would now require increased paperwork and approvals. Still, such a provision could be used to continue to deprive detainees of timely and fair trials. This is especially problematic when it comes to detained Pakistani citizens, since the ISI’s primary mandate is to deal with external threats. Timidity is also obvious in the approach the government has taken. The proposed legislation has been introduced as a private member’s bill but was moved by the president’s spokesperson and high-profile PPP loyalist Farhatullah Babar, indicating an attempt to test the waters without putting the party in a position where it has to own the bill if the gamble doesn’t pay off. And perhaps this is such tricky terrain that a pragmatic strategy is needed. However it was introduced, though, its reception in parliament should be an interesting test of how willing elected representatives are to assert rightful civilian control.