(CNSNews.com) – In comments viewed in Pakistan as a veiled threat against an increasingly forthright judiciary, the country’s powerful armed forces chief warned Monday against any efforts to undermine the military.
The rare comments by General Ashfaq Kayani have sparked unease in an unstable nuclear-armed country that has endured four military coups and a fifth unsuccessful attempt in its 65-year history, more than half of which has been under military rule.
“[A]ny effort which wittingly or unwittingly draws a wedge between the people and armed forces of Pakistan undermines the larger national interest,” he told senior officers in Rawalpindi, home to Pakistan’s military headquarters. “While constructive criticism is well understood, conspiracy theories based on rumors which create doubts about the very intent, are unacceptable.”
Kayani said the nation was “passing through a defining phase.”
His remarks came just weeks after Pakistan’s outspoken Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, ordered the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to stop interfering in politics.
In a landmark ruling, Chaudhry instructed the government to investigate allegations that former senior officers, including a retired army chief and a retired ISI head, had manipulated elections in 1990 by funding parties opposed to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), then headed by the late Benazir Bhutto and now the ruling party.
Kayani in his remarks appeared to come to the former generals’ defense.
“As we all are striving for the rule of law, the fundamental principle that no one is guilty until proven should not be forgotten,” he said. “Let us not prejudge anyone, be it a civilian or a military person and extend it, unnecessarily, to undermine respective institutions.”
Kayani, himself a former ISI chief, succeeded former president Pervez Musharraf as army chief in 2007.
“The media, the public and the judiciary always have and always will salute the army when it does what it is constitutionally mandated to do,” the Pakistan daily The News said in an editorial. “But when its officers step into domains constitutionally and legally outside their jurisdiction, they will rightly be questioned for redefining the national interest according to their own whims, as opposed to the law of the land.”
In comments that could add to the simmering controversy, Chaudhry also released the text of a speech on Monday that focused on state institutions and constitutionalism but included references to the military.
“Gone are the days when stability and security of the country was defined in terms of number of missiles and tanks as a manifestation of hard power available at the disposal of the state,” he told a meeting of bureaucrats.
Chaudhry has a history of clashes with powerful military figures. In March 2007 Musharraf suspended the chief justice, sparking months of street protests. Chaudhry was reinstated four months later, but in November of that year Musharraf declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, and sacked Chaudhry and other judges who refused to take a new oath following the suspension of the constitution. Chaudhry was placed under house arrest.
Amid public protests and international pressure Musharraf then called legislative elections in which his parliamentary allies were defeated by opposition parties including the PPP, leading to his eventual resignation in August 2008. On his first day in office PPP Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani ordered Chaudhry’s release from house arrest and he was restored as chief justice the following year.