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Pakistan’s military resists attempts to hold it accountable

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ISLAMABAD — The footage was startling: A group of what appeared to be Pakistani soldiers gunning down several blindfolded men in a forested area.

As the clips circulated online and the U.S. threatened to cut aid, Pakistan's army chief promised a full investigation and punishment for any wrongdoers.

Two years later: Silence.

What has the inquiry found? The army won't say. Was anyone punished? Not a word.

Some rights activists question whether an investigation even took place.

Pakistan has spent nearly five years under civilian rule, an unusually long stretch for a 65-year-old country prone to military coups.

But as the firing squad footage and several other prominent scandals suggest, the army remains largely unwilling to hold itself accountable to the public. This despite some pressure from more active media and judiciary and despite hopes that the military would rethink its ways after the humiliation it suffered following the unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The army's lack of transparency and resistance to civilian oversight could cripple Pakistan's transition to a healthy democracy, something the United States says the country needs.

But the Americans can't protest too much: Washington needs the Pakistani army's cooperation as the war in Afghanistan winds down, and it already struggles to balance a strained relationship as it presses the army to root out anti-U.S. insurgents hiding in Pakistan.

"It's important to understand that generally the Pakistani military is very careful about not hurting its own people," especially as they fight Islamists trying to overthrow the state, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent Pakistani defense analyst.

Most ordinary Pakistanis feel powerless to take on the army, and when it comes to reining in the men in uniform, the still-weak civilian government "can't do anything," she said.

The two video clips that spawned the supposed inquiry fueled allegations that the military carried out numerous extrajudicial killings in the Swat Valley during a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in 2009.

Bloodied corpses of suspected militants were found dumped on the streets for months after the army retook the valley from the Taliban. The army denied those killings.

The grainy footage, which came to light in September 2010, is believed to have been recorded in Swat. A nearly six-minute clip shows men in Pakistani military uniforms lining up six blindfolded men in civilian clothes, then shooting them.

After a voice says "finish them one by one," one apparent soldier walks over to the men and shoots them again. The other, 53-second clip shows only the executions.

On Oct. 8, 2010, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced an inquiry into the matter. He noted the probe would consider if the footage was even real, but also said: "It is not expected of a professional army to engage in excesses against the people whom it is trying to guard against the scourge of terrorism."

In the two years since, the Associated Press repeatedly has asked the army about the status of the probe. At most, the answer has been that it's under way. Attempts to get army comment for this story led nowhere.

Other cases further illustrate the difficulty in holding the army accountable.

A year before the execution videos surfaced, a clip on YouTube and Facebook appeared to show Pakistani soldiers beating and whipping four militant suspects. The army promised to investigate but has never released any findings.

In mid-September, Gen. Kayani announced that the military would take over the investigation and prosecution of three retired generals accused in a financial scam that was being probed by a parliamentary committee. The three were "recalled" into the army, apparently so they could be shielded from civilian courts.

And then there's the "Abbottabad commission," the panel tasked with finding out what bin Laden was doing in Pakistan and what led to the May 2011 U.S. raid that killed him. The panel's creation was hailed because it was technically independent of the military.

But its report has been repeatedly delayed, and if it is ever released, many doubt anyone in the security establishment will be held to account -- at least not in public.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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