Pakistan is holding 700 suspected militants without charges under a controversial law that has been criticized by human rights organizations, the country's attorney general said Thursday.
The admission, made during a Supreme Court hearing, will likely fuel concerns about Pakistan's conduct over the past several years as it has battled a domestic Taliban insurgency in the country's northwest.
The 700 suspected militants are being held in internment centers in the country's semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border, the main Taliban sanctuary in the country, said Attorney General Irfan Qadir.
They will be held until the military concludes operations against the Taliban, and then authorities will determine whether they can be tried in court, said Qadir. He justified the detention under a law passed in 2011 known as the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations.
"It's a war-like situation there," said Qadir. "While the operation is on, their status will remain the same."
Amnesty International criticized the law in a December report, saying both it and colonial-era regulations in the tribal region "provide a framework for widespread human rights violations to occur with impunity."
The London-based rights group said the Pakistani military regularly holds people without charges and tortures or mistreats them in custody. It said some detainees do not survive and their bodies are returned to their families, or dumped in remote areas.
The Pakistani military called the report "a pack of lies."
The attorney general's comments came during a Supreme Court hearing into seven suspected militants who have been held without charges since May 2010.
The seven men were among 11 suspected militants captured in connection with a 2007 suicide bombing against ISI personnel and a rocket attack a year later against an air force base. An anti-terrorism court ordered them to be freed in May 2010, but they were picked up again near the capital, Islamabad. Four died in custody under mysterious circumstances.
The ISI produced the seven surviving men in court last February in response to a judicial order prompted by their relatives, who were looking for them. Two of the men were too weak to walk. Another wore a urine bag, suggesting a kidney ailment. In a meeting with their families on the court premises, they complained of harsh treatment during their detention.
A lawyer for Pakistan's most powerful intelligence agency said Monday that his client held the suspects for over a year and a half without sufficient evidence to try them and then handed them over to the internment centers in the tribal region. He said officials were convinced they were "dangerous people and involved in terrorism."
Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry told the attorney general that the men should be tried in a court of law or released if there isn't sufficient evidence. His remarks seemed to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.
"We don't want them to be released if they are criminals or militants," said Chaudhry. "They should be tried under law, and you cannot keep them in custody illegally."
The court ordered officials from the tribal region to produce a detailed report about the evidence against each suspect when the hearing resumes on Jan. 28.
The Supreme Court has also been pressing the government on a case involving corruption allegations against Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, which he has denied. The chief justice ordered the government's anti-corruption chief, Fasih Bokhari, to arrest Ashraf last week, but he refused, citing lack of evidence.
The case took a strange turn at the end of last week when one of the anti-corruption officials working on the case, which involves alleged kickbacks for the construction of private power stations, was found dead, hanging from a ceiling fan in a government lodge in Islamabad.
The police are treating Kamran Faisal's death as a suicide, but his family has raised doubts, claiming there were marks on his wrists indicating they had been bound.
The chief justice ordered a judicial probe into Faisal's death on Wednesday, citing the family's concern that the government would not conduct an impartial investigation because of the high-level politicians involved.
On Thursday, the two-judge panel ordered officials to provide video footage from the security cameras at the government lodge where Faisal was found. They also ordered Pakistan's telecommunications authority to provide a record of Faisal's calls and summoned relevant officials to appear before the court on Jan. 28.