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Pakistan's top law officer on Thursday disclosed for the first time that security agencies are holding at least 700 people indefinitely without trial in connection with the “war on terror”.
Attorney General Irfan Qadir told the Supreme Court the suspects were arrested in the semi-autonomous northwestern tribal belt, where the military has been fighting Islamist militants for around a decade.
He said none of the suspects could be freed until the end of operations in the tribal belt, and declined to say how long they had been in custody.
“There are about 700 people detained in the tribal areas and they cannot be released until the ongoing military operation in those regions concludes,” Qadir told the court.
“The detained men can be handed over to authorities only after the operation is halted in the tribal regions.”
Pakistan's top court is investigating the fate of seven suspects who have been held without trial since 2007 even though a judge ordered their release in May 2010.
The case is seen as a challenge to perceptions that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and other branches of the security services operate above the law.
The ISI is accused in the West of maintaining links to Taliban and Islamist militants, whom it has historically sponsored.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said the seven suspects must be put on trial and holding them indefinitely violated their human rights.
“These people cannot be kept in illegal custody for an indefinite period because it is against the constitution and basic fundamental rights,” he said.
“We don't say you should release them... we want you to try them in accordance with the law,” he added, adjourning the case until January 28.
The seven men who were arrested in the tribal belt in November 2007 disappeared after their release was ordered in 2010.
In February 2012 the Supreme Court forced the ISI and military intelligence to produce the men in court - an unprecedented move.
The men were in poor health, barely able to stand or talk, and they remain in custody to this day. There were originally 11 detainees in the case but the court was told that four of them died.
Pakistan joined the US-led “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which sparked the US-led invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan.
Islamist militant bombings have killed thousands in the country since then.
Last month, Amnesty International said Pakistan's military had arbitrarily detained thousands for long periods with little or no access to due process.
A spokesman for the military rejected the allegations as a “pack of lies”. - Sapa-AFP