Pakistan's Supreme Court yesterday rebuked the powerful military and intelligence agencies, calling for them to uphold free speech and stay out of politics in a country ruled by the generals for nearly half its existence.
The unusually strong criticism was issued in a judgement released criticising the role of the intelligence agencies in anti-blasphemy protests which paralysed the capital Islamabad for several weeks in 2017.
"If any personnel of the Armed Forces indulges in any form of politicking or tries to manipulate the media he undermines the integrity and professionalism of the Armed Forces," the judgement, posted on the Supreme Court website, stated.
Pakistan's Constitution "emphatically prohibits" members of the armed forces from "engaging in any kind of political activity", it added, ordering the government and the chiefs of the army, air force and navy to take action against anyone found violating their oaths to uphold the document.
The 2017 protests were led by a then-little known Islamist group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), and were only dispersed after violent clashes led to a military-brokered deal which forced the resignation of the federal law minister.
Viral videos showing what appeared to be soldiers handing out cash to protesters helped fuel speculation the demonstrators were backed by the military as it sought to put pressure on the then-ruling party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The judgement also spelled out curbs on free speech, singling out the intelligence agencies for a stern warning.
"All intelligence agencies... and the (military's media wing) must not exceed their respective mandates. They cannot curtail the freedom of speech and expression," the judgement said.
"Those who resort to such tactics under the mistaken belief that they serve some higher goal delude themselves," it continued.
Local media have complained about pressure in the run-up to a general election in July to self-censor in favour of the eventual victor, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan.
Activists and bloggers speaking out against the state and military have also complained of repression.