Pakistan’s Supreme Court rebuked the powerful military and intelligence agencies on Wednesday, 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 judgment 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,” stated the judgment, posted on the Supreme Court website. 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. All intelligence agencies … and the [military’s media wing] must not exceed their respective mandates Supreme Court 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 country’s law minister. Viral videos showing what appeared to be soldiers handing out cash to protesters fuelled 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 judges also criticised 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 court said. “Those who resort to such tactics under the mistaken belief that they serve some higher goal delude themselves.” Local media have complained about pressure in the run-up to a general election last July to self-censor in favour of the eventual victor, Imran Khan. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report last year that the army had “quietly but effectively, set restrictions on reporting”. Activists and bloggers speaking out against the state and the military have also complained of repression. Earlier this week, some 20 activists with the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), a group critical of military policies, were arrested while demonstrating in Islamabad. Most were transferred to a nearby prison, but the family of one, prominent activist Gulalai Ismail, voiced fears she had been forcibly disappeared. Police did not respond to requests for comment. Amnesty International in a statement called on the Pakistani authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release” the detained PTM protesters. “We are deeply concerned about the fate of Gulalai Ismail. Her whereabouts must be established immediately,” Rabia Mehmood, South Asia researcher at the rights group, said in the statement. Pakistan’s courts have cautioned the military establishment against meddling before – and paid a price. An Islamabad High Court judge was ousted last year after he publicly accused the country’s top intelligence agency of manipulating judicial decisions to influence the general election.