The differences between Pakistan's civilian government and its all powerful military spilled out in the open on Monday with a lawyer representing the government telling the Supreme Court that the Army and an American intelligence agency posed a threat to the country’s democracy.
Later, Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called on Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. It was an unscheduled meeting, and came after he had already met the Prime Minister once before in the day along with the visiting U.S. Centcom chief, General David Petraeus.
No details of the meeting were available. An official release from the Prime Minister's office said only that they discussed issues relating to national security.
A stunned full court, comprising all 17 functioning judges, heard from Kamal Azfar, a senior lawyer representing the federal government in the NRO case, that the elected government feared destabilisation by the Pakistan Army and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The lawyer, a former Governor of the Sindh province, last week filed an application on behalf of the government that the full court should restrict itself to hearing the petitions against the National Reconciliation Ordinance, and that the arguments should be confined to legal issues.
The petitions, that were pending before the court since October 2007, demand that the NRO should be struck down as an unconstitutional law as it is discriminatory in nature. The government had earlier decided not to defend itself in court against the petitions, but seemed to have changed its mind after the court started an impromptu inquiry into circumstances surrounding the closure of cases against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss courts under the NRO.
Mr. Azfar asked in the application that if the court wanted to take up issues not covered by the petitions, these could be dealt with through other petitions.
The application dramatically stated that the Supreme Court's verdict could make the difference between democracy and destabilization in Pakistan.
At Monday's hearing, the court repeatedly quizzed Mr. Azfar about the government's apprehensions. At first the lawyer said there were “extra-constitutional” forces within and outside Pakistan.
But asked to clarify the statement, the lawyer said: “If you want me to be open, the danger is from CIA and GHQ [General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army]”.
The court wanted Mr. Azfar to give it in writing, but appearing to backtrack somewhat, he said these were his personal views.
But observers see the statement as a surprisingly open admission of differences between Pakistan's civilian dispensation and the military, with potentially damaging consequences for the already embattled government.
Meanwhile, the main petitioner in the case, a former PPP stalwart, Dr. Mubashir Hassan, said he was troubled at the direction in which the case seems to be going.
“Things are taking a turn that was not intended in my petition. The intention of my petition was purely legal. It was not a political petition, and I filed it a year before Zardari became the President,” the octogenarian politician told The Hindu.