ISLAMABAD The Pakistani military is holding thousands of suspected militants in indefinite detention, arguing that the nations dysfunctional civilian justice system cannot be trusted to prevent them from walking free, said US and Pakistani officials. The majority of the detainees have been held for nearly a year and have been allowed no contact with family members, lawyers or humanitarian groups, the Pakistani officials and human rights advocates said. Top US officials have raised concern about the detentions with Pakistani leaders, fearing that the issue could undermine American domestic and Congressional support for the US-backed counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan and jeopardize billions of dollars in US assistance. Pakistani officials say that they are aware of the problem but that there is no clear solution: Pakistan has no applicable military justice system, and even civilian officials concede that their courts are not up to the task of handling such a large volume of complex terrorism cases. There is little forensic evidence in most cases, and witnesses are likely to be too scared to testify, reported The Washington Post. The quandary plays directly into the Talibans strategy. The group has gained a following in Pakistan by capitalising on the weakness of the civilian government, promising the sort of swift justice that is often absent from the slow-moving and overburdened courts. Pakistans struggle over how to handle the detainees echoes a debate in the United States over the remaining prisoners being held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It also reflects the tensions between security and civil liberties that confront US allies as they battle Islamist extremists. We dont have a system like Egypt, where you send a man to court and three days later hes executed, said Malik Naveed Khan, the top police official in northwestern Pakistan. The judges decide the punishment, and they have to look at the evidence. The United States has not pushed for a specific solution but has encouraged Pakistan to begin handling the detainees within the law, US officials said. Although Pakistan has in the past sent high-level detainees to the United States for interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities, Pakistani officials say all the current detainees are suspected of crimes against the Pakistani state and will be dealt with domestically. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, said the military is extremely concerned that the detainees will be allowed to go free if they are turned over to the civilian government. More than 300 suspected militants who had been detained in the militarys 2007 operation in the Swat Valley were later released under a peace deal. Many returned to the Taliban, Abbas said, making the armys task harder when it again rolled into Swat last spring. Most of the current detainees were picked up during that operation, which eliminated a key Taliban sanctuary, though many fighters simply fled. Pakistan also detained suspected militants during its offensive in South Waziristan last fall and in other operations in adjacent tribal areas. This month, the Human Rights Watch said it had documented as many as 300 extrajudicial killings by the military during and after the Swat operation. The military has denied that charge. Ali Dayan Hasan, the New York-based organisations senior South Asia analyst, said that without proper documentation of the detainees, more could be tortured and killed. What this is an argument for is the law of the jungle, Hasan said. This is a gross abuse of human rights and very bad counter-terror strategy. There has been no public accounting of who has been detained, so the exact number of prisoners is not known. US officials estimate the total at 2,500, a figure that roughly corresponds to Pakistani estimates, though some outside analysts in Pakistan say the number is higher. The International Committee of the Red Cross has not been given access to any detainees in northwest Pakistan since last year. They are being held in special military detention centres across the region, though the exact locations have not been made public. Pakistan officially describes its military operations in the northwest as a law enforcement action, rather than an armed conflict, which permits it to avoid following international protocol for the treatment of prisoners of war. US officials say they worry that the detentions will further inflame the Pakistani public at a time when the government here needs popular support for its offensives. Theyre treating the local population with a heavy hand, and theyre alienating them, said an Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. As a result, its sort of a classic case going back to Vietnam; it [risks] actually creating more sympathy for the extremists. After years of international criticism over secret US prison sites, the official said, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made improving the detention system one of the central features of his new counterinsurgency strategy. But Pakistan, where the military has long called the shots while the civilian government languished, has not recognized the issues importance, the official said. US officials worry, too, that by holding thousands of people without trial, Pakistan risks running afoul of the Leahy Amendment, which requires recipients of US military assistance to abide by international human rights laws and standards. The United States has provided Pakistan with nearly $18 billion in military and development aid since 2002, with the administration requesting $3 billion more for 2011. Obviously, you dont want the Pakistanis to do anything to complicate a relationship that requires support from Congress, the US official said. Pakistani security officials said that the vast majority of the detainees are Pakistani citizens but that some are foreigners, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have used Pakistans remote western border with Afghanistan as a sanctuary in recent years. Some detainees are considered leading insurgent commanders, while most are foot soldiers. The men are being questioned by investigators and are classified into one of three categories: black for hard-core militants, gray for their supporters and white for civilians not involved in the insurgency, said Khan, the police chief for northwestern Pakistan. Those in the white category are released as the investigations proceed, officials say. Khan said that he expects the detainees to be tried in civilian courts but that he does not know when. I dont see any other option, he said. But it will take time. The Washington Post