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2007-11-05

Pakistan’s Musharraf Gets U.S. Backing for Crackdown Just Days Before Court Decision on Case Challenging His Rule

Topics

Guests

Devin Theriot-Orr, American lawyer and currently a fellow with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan researching jails, detentions and disappearances. He was among those arrested Sunday from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan office in Lahore.

Manan Ahmed, historian of modern Pakistan and South Asian Islam. He blogs at Chapati Mystery and Juan Cole’s "Informed Comment: Global Affairs."

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In a countrywide crackdown, Musharraf has declared a state of emergency, removed Pakistan’s chief justice and arrested thousands of people. We go to Lahore for reaction from American lawyer Devin Theriot-Orr and speak to Pakistan historian Manan Ahmed. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the so-called war on terror, is in a state of emergency. In a countrywide crackdown, police and soldiers beat and arrested hundreds of lawyers and activists today who were protesting the imposition of what critics are describing as a state of martial law.

Pakistani army chief and president, General Pervez Musharraf, suspended the constitution, replaced the country’s chief justice and declared a state of emergency late on Saturday night. The emergency proclamation cites the rise in terrorist violence but also criticizes "the constant interference" of the judiciary in executive function. It states the judiciary was "overstepping the limits of judicial authority" by meting out "humiliating treatment" to government officials. General Musharraf’s imposition of the emergency came days before the Supreme Court was to decide on whether his re-election last month while remaining army chief was valid.

All communications were cut in the capital on Saturday, and independent TV stations are still blacked out. The media is subject to a code of conduct that criminalizes criticism of government officials and any opinion "prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan."

Reports indicate well over a thousand activists and lawyers were detained over the weekend. Leading oppositional figures and prominent voices in the pro-democracy movement have been placed under house arrest.

In a 45-minute address on national television, General Musharraf explained his decision to suspend the constitution and compared his actions to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of civil rights during the U.S. Civil War. This is an excerpt of General Musharraf’s televised address Saturday night.

GENERAL PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization, if not arrested in time, now, without losing any further time or delaying the issue. The saddest part of everything, which saddens me the most, that after all we have achieved in the past seven years, I see in front of my eyes Pakistan’s upsurge taking a downward trend. I, personally, with all my conviction, and with all the facts available to me, consider that inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan, and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide. Therefore, I had to take this action in order to preserve the democratic transition, which I initiated eight years back.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pakistani President General Musharraf in a televised address late Saturday night explaining his decision to impose a state of emergency. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Islamabad over the weekend. This is how she described Musharraf and his supporters during a telephone interview with reporters on Sunday.

BENAZIR BHUTTO: These people are very unpopular. Their party was formed — the ruling party was formed in the headquarters of the ISI, following the elections of 2002. And they have presided over the rise of extremism and militancy in Pakistan. There are, every day, news of bomb blasts, loss of lives. The situation is out of the control of the ruling party. And I fear that unless regime change comes, we could be facing a takeover by radicals.

AMY GOODMAN: While no senior U.S. official has called Musharraf to protest the state of emergency, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her concern over the situation in Pakistan at a news conference Sunday in Jerusalem during a visit to Israel. This is some of what she had to say.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The United States does not support and communicated to the Pakistani leadership prior to this action that it would not support extra-constitutional means. I think the issue now is that it is in the best interest of Pakistan and the best interest of the Pakistani people for there to be a prompt return to a constitutional course, for there to be an affirmation that elections will be held for a new parliament, and for all parties to act with restraint in what is obviously a very difficult situation.

AMY GOODMAN: At a news conference Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz explained it was "difficult to say" how long the emergency would last.

PRIME MINISTER SHAUKAT AZIZ: We are committed to pursuing a parliamentary form of government. We are committed to making sure that elections are held and that the democratic process flourishes in Pakistan.

Well, as to how long it will be there, it is difficult to say. We — I will say it will be there as long as it is necessary, but our desire is to keep it as short as feasible. This will allow us to move faster, to take people for interrogation and then allow them to — allow the law enforcement agencies to be more effective, because we’re dealing with an unusual situation. And we are very confident that this will be achieved without too much time being taken.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz speaking to reporters Sunday in Islamabad.

For the latest update from Pakistan, we’re now joined on the phone from Lahore by the American lawyer Devin Theriot-Orr. He is currently a fellow with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, researching jails, detentions and disappearances. He was among the over 70 activist lawyers and professors detained at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan office on Sunday. Devin was released early this morning, but several others remain in jail.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Devin Theriot-Orr. Tell us the latest.

DEVIN THERIOT-ORR: Well, Amy, I was released this morning, but I’m sad to report that although my colleagues were supposed to be released in a deal that was brokered by several prominent journalists, they are — after going before the magistrate this morning and chanting anti-Musharraf slogans, they have now been transferred to jail and are being held without access to their families in a jail in Lahore with the — that is extremely — Lahore is overcrowded, according to our statistics from last year’s annual report. The capacity of the jail is about 1,000 people, but as of last year they had almost 4,000 people in the jail only designed for 1,000. And given the recent spate of arrests, including 850 arrests just today in Lahore over the past — actually over the past two days, I imagine that the jail is even more overcrowded.

And many of these people, just to be clear, were attending a meeting. This was not a protest action. No one was even in the streets. This was a private meeting inside the offices of a non-governmental organization that had called a meeting specifically to address the human rights issues arising out of Musharraf’s coup and were trying to plan a response for civil society. No one was engaged in any sort of violent activities, and we weren’t even out in a public place when we were detained and later arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling it a coup?

DEVIN THERIOT-ORR: Absolutely, absolutely. There is a provision in the constitution of Pakistan that would permit the chief executive to take extraordinary measures, including suspending fundamental rights. That is called the declaration of emergency and is actually a holdover from British rule. And to do that, it would require several things to happen, and one of which is that the constitution would not actually be suspended; it would be — under the declaration of emergency, they can hold certain provisions in abeyance, but there are certain procedural steps that have to be taken that were not taken here.

And, in fact, the sitting Supreme Court on Saturday afternoon, when rumors started to fly that this was going to happen, the Supreme Court held an extraordinary session in Islamabad, where they waited for the news of the proclamation and declaration of emergency and, when they received the declaration, immediately acted: at least seven judges, which is a majority, voted to suspend the provisional constitutional order issued by Musharraf and ask that all judges in Pakistan not take any oath under the new regime and to — and ask the security agencies to enforce the writ of the court.

The problem here in Pakistan — I mean, this is a bold, bold step for Pakistan, because in the history of the many, many coups in this country, always the judiciary is the first place that the coup maker goes to demand allegiance by the judiciary. And although previously there have been a few judges that have declined to take new oaths and have therefore been detained and sacked, what we are seeing now is a majority of the judges in Pakistan have refused to take the oaths and are being replaced en masse and being held in detention, mostly under house arrest because of their VIP status, rather than the political workers who are being held in horrible conditions.

And so, this is a coup. There’s no doubt about it. And it is also a historic weekend for Pakistan, in that it’s the first time that the judiciary has stood up and taken a stand against the military. Unfortunately, the judiciary does not have an army. And so, when you have a situation like this, if you have people with guns who come into the Supreme Court and say, you know, "You’re coming with us," there is not much that the Supreme Court can do other than file an order and protest. And that is what they have done. And now, a new Supreme Court justice has been appointed. And that is the current situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Devin, can you explain who Asma Jahangir is, who was arrested on Saturday night?

DEVIN THERIOT-ORR: Sure. She is actually my boss. She is the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a prominent human rights lawyer, and she was placed under house arrest under early raids, actually I think maybe even before the PCO was issued — I mean, certainly on Saturday afternoon or early evening. She was in the first set of roundups of people who were detained. And she is, you know, again, being accorded VIP status, as being a relatively influential person. And so, she is under house arrest, along with I.A. Rehman, who is the director of the Lahore chapter of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and several other HRCP workers.

So she has issued a statement from her house, calling this, you know, an immoral and unjustified act by Musharraf, which, you know, if you read the proclamation, which I hope you manage to publish on the website — I forwarded it to someone earlier today — it reads — you know, there is this state of unrest in Pakistan. There’s no doubt that there are — there is militant activity. You know, in Swat, there have been a couple of times when militants have actually captured and disarmed soldiers from the Pakistan military, and this would be as if, you know, in Montana, for example, some separatists were able to take U.S. Army troops and disarm them and parade them in front of the town. So this is — you know, there are security situations in Pakistan.

But — and I expected, when I heard that the martial law had been declared, I expected that the proclamation would rely essentially only on this, even though everybody knows that the real reason is because he is targeting the media and the judiciary. But, in fact, if you read the proclamation, he doesn’t even hide the fact that this is an attack on — directly on the judiciary, because the judiciary was sitting in a case to hear whether he was — whether Musharraf was qualified to sit for re-election. And it seemed more likely, as this case drew on, that the judiciary was in fact going to rule that he was not qualified, because he holds two offices, as a member of the — chief of army staff, as a military leader, and as a civilian, and that is strictly prohibited under Pakistan’s constitution. So Musharraf was forced to act, because the court was likely to rule on his qualification this week and actually hold that he was not qualified, which would have forced him to either declare martial law or step down from power. So he took preemptive action this weekend, and his proclamation does not even attempt to hide the fact.

And I should also add that he has imposed very strict restrictions on the media. The reason people knew that something was happening was that all the private television stations, which have ironically prospered under Musharraf — Musharraf, one claim that even his detractors will agree on is that under his leadership since '99, he has significantly freed the media from very strict restrictions that were imposed previously, and private television stations have grown tremendously in the past eight years. But all private TV stations were pulled offline. BBC News, CNN, Fox, Sky News, all foreign media were taken off the air. And so, you know — and the restrictions on the print media prohibit any criticism of the government and anything that could promote unrest. And keep in mind that unrest, given that myself and many other activists were arrested in a meeting for just meeting — I mean, we weren't even doing anything — you know, unrest can be very, very broadly construed, I think, now in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Devin Theriot-Orr, I want to thank you very much for being with us, American lawyer who is currently with the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. He was speaking to us from Lahore, just recently released from detention, but many of his colleagues have not been released. When we come back, we’re going to go back to talk about Pakistan. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Manan Ahmed is a blogger and historian of Pakistan and South Asian Islam, blogs at " Chapati Mystery" and Juan Cole’s " Informed Comment." He was born in Lahore, grew up during Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. Manan joins us now from Chicago.

Your assessment of the state of emergency right now?

MANAN AHMED: Thank you, Amy, for having me. I think what’s the most notable thing is that since March, Pakistan has seen a seismic shift in the way the army is construed as a part of civil society and governance. And the lawyers, the "revolt," quote/unquote, against the Supreme Court, the sacking of the Supreme Court by Musharraf in March, triggered this seismic shift. And so, what we’re seeing now, in fact, is a very belated response by Musharraf to try to wrestle back control. He has lost most of legitimacy in the middle classes in the governing elite, and he is basically trying to subvert what he thinks are elements working against him under the guise of judicial activism and what he claims are claims of extremism and terrorism throughout the country, all of which is actually a very sobering situation developing in Pakistan.

But the key fact remains that Musharraf does not have the legitimacy to carry out even the proxy war on terror that we want him to act in in Pakistan. And the quickest way, the quickest solution, the easiest solution, contrary to what Musharraf says in his speech, is a return to democracy in Pakistan and a return to — and, you know, a giving of the power to the people who would like to express their opinion, just as they have the right in any other country in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Did this surprise you, what took place on Saturday night?

MANAN AHMED: He has been trying to declare emergency for — throughout the late summer. So he tried — there were rumors about this in late August; again, a couple of weeks ago. So it is not exactly surprising.

What is surprising is that he went about it in such a draconian manner, especially the crackdown on media, the crackdown on human right activists, opposition leaders, and his reliance on sort of the tacit approval of U.S. foreign policy in the State Department. I was taken aback by that. I thought that recently the White House and the State Department had made some gestures to support democracy. The agreement with Benazir Bhutto that was, I think, brokered by the State Department to come back to Pakistan and to participate in some kind of government sharing, I thought, were gestures towards bringing back some sort of democracy. And I think — [signal lost]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re trying to call back Manan Ahmed. We seem to have just lost him on the satellite, but we will move on. He is a historian of South Asian Islam. He was joining us from Chicago.

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