New York-based Pakistani lawyer. His father is Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the lawyers’ movement and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan. He was one of the first persons jailed when Musharraf declared a state of emergency last year.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced his resignation today in order to avoid charges of impeachment that were to be leveled against him later this week. General Musharraf has ruled Pakistan since he seized power in a 1999 coup. He has been a close ally to the United States for the past decade. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced his resignation today in the face of impeachment charges by parliament. Musharraf made the announcement in a live television address to the nation.
PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: [translated] Therefore, keeping all circumstances in mind, and after consultations with legal advisers, close political supporters, and on their advice, in the interest of the nation and the country, I’m taking the decision of resigning from my office. My resignation will reach the Speaker of the National Assembly today.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Musharraf decided to step down as ministers warned over the weekend that impeachment proceedings against him could begin as early as Tuesday.
The charges against him include violation of the constitution and gross misconduct. In the hour-long televised address, Musharraf insisted the charges were false but said he was stepping down to avoid plunging Pakistan into more uncertainty. Musharraf also defended his record in office since seizing power in a 1999 military coup.
Last year, Musharraf imposed emergency rule and fired nearly sixty judges, including Pakistan’s chief justice, to prevent them from overturning his reelection as president. His rivals won parliamentary elections in February and have since sought his ouster.
Leaders of the ruling coalition are currently discussing whether to prosecute Musharraf in court on charges that were being planned for the impeachment process.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that Musharraf has been a “good ally” but that his future was an internal issue for Pakistan to determine.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Ahsan is a New York-based Pakistani lawyer. His father is Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the lawyers’ movement and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan. Aitzaz Ahsan was the first person jailed when Musharraf declared a state of emergency last year. His son, Ali Ahsan, joins us in the firehouse studio.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
ALI AHSAN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this announcement earlier today?
ALI AHSAN: You know, it’s significant as a first step. It’s sort of, to me, for instance, the equivalent of Bush leaving office in January. But it’s now — it’s an opening.
What is important to note is that what the lawyers of Pakistan and people like myself who, even here, are advocating for is not just the ouster of individuals, but also the righting of the wrongs that they’ve committed. And as — for instance, in the US, if Guantanamo stays open, if torture remains a policy practiced by some arms of the government, Bush’s departure changes nothing. And the fear for Pakistan is, this is — it’s an exuberant opening today, and no doubting that, like, people like myself are hopeful, but this is the beginning, this is not the end. And that’s critical from a Pakistani perspective. Musharraf did a number of things, especially in the recent past, that need to be rectified, such as the firing of the judges, such as his policies on picking up people and taking them away, such as the encroachment of the military and the intelligence services into civilian life. All that has — now has to be rolled back, given that the figure of Musharraf has left.
And the second thing which I personally believe is extremely important, and unfortunately may not — seems will not happen is that he will never be held accountable for what he has done. He is getting safe passage. He’s being allowed to resign, quote-unquote, "honorably." And what in Pakistan the lawyers have been fighting for and civil society has been fighting for is not just a fight against Musharraf, the individual, but a fight for rule of law, where there are consequences for criminal actions. And what we’re getting is, as long as you have friends in high places in the US administration, in the British government, you can get away, quite literally, with murder, and if worse comes to worse, we will give you an honorable exit out. And I think it sets a very bad precedent going forward in a country where dictators have a proclivity to come in, and you’re telling him this is the worst that can happen to you, an honorable exit, when everything goes wrong. And I sometimes wish that we could try and hold these people to account.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, what happens now? Who takes over, because he’s leaving immediately? And then, the process of choosing a successor to Musharraf?
ALI AHSAN: He leaves immediately, from my understanding and under the constitution. And when the president leaves, the chairman of the senate steps in as acting president. It’s the equivalent perhaps of a vice presidential situation, where we don’t have a vice president. And then, the parliament is expected to elect a new president, I understand, within thirty days or shortly thereafter. So we’ll have an acting president for a short period of time, and then the coalition partners of the current government will have to elect a new president.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Ahsan, can you talk about the role of the United States, the British, the Saudis in brokering this deal?
ALI AHSAN: Well, the basic thing to note from there is it’s good to have friends in high places. Musharraf was initially — they’ve been very actively involved in propping up Musharraf. Ron Suskind, in his book that recently came out, talked about how the Americans, for instance, never took Benazir Bhutto seriously, when she tried earlier on to try and chart out her return to Pakistan, until last year, when the lawyers’ protest broke out and Musharraf tried to finally fire the chief justice, and they realized that Musharraf’s position was becoming wobbly, at which point, in order to bolster him, they tried to bring in this facade — well, an arrangement between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf, and not as a way to bring democracy to Pakistan, but as a way to give another veneer of legitimacy to Musharraf and to prolong his rule.
AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind said something pretty amazing last week on Democracy Now!, author of The Way of the World. He was with Benazir Bhutto up until, what, ten days before she was assassinated. And she was telling him in Quetta that she was waiting for Cheney — since the US had really brought Benazir Bhutto back to Pakistan — she had worked with them — she was waiting for Vice President Cheney to make the call to Musharraf to say “You better protect her,” and that call never came, that Musharraf, first of all, had it in his full ability to protect her, to put the security on her that she needed, but that the Cheney call that would have made that necessary, the demand, didn’t come.
ALI AHSAN: Well, it’s not surprising that he said it didn’t come from Cheney’s office, for people who follow this administration. But what it also illustrates is this administration’s role in propping up people, not principles, contrary to some of their rhetoric. And the person in this case was Musharraf. And this is what happened right now, as well. You know, for the longest time — and it was very frustrating for the lawyers of Pakistan, who were hitting the streets — secular, liberal, progressive, leftist people, who are natural allies with the United States in a fight against extremism, but the administration consciously and conspicuously avoided them, because it would embarrass — even acknowledging their existence would embarrass Musharraf.
And what has happened now is, after — even during his de facto martial law late last year, the administration vocally and publicly supported him, until a point was reached by now in which the people of Pakistan really changed the dynamics on the ground through voting in the elections, through their protests on the streets, when they realized that Musharraf’s position is untenable. But even at that point, they demanded essentially an honorable exit.
Mark Lyall Grant, the political director of the Foreign Office in the United Kingdom, just spent several days in Pakistan meeting all the functionaries very publicly, and he was one of the brokers of the original deal with Benazir Bhutto and now was there ostensibly, by all accounts, to try and get a safe exit for Musharraf, an honorable, dignified exit for a military ruler who abrogated the constitution. And the same thing with the Saudi intelligence chief who flew in for two days. I mean, unfortunately for Pakistan, we tend to defer so much to these people. And in the case of the Saudi intelligence chief there, in Pakistan it’s widely perceived that the Saudis wield tremendous influence, also act as proxies in these situations for the American administration.
When Nawaz Sharif — Musharraf sent the earlier prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, into exile in Saudi Arabia. Now, reports indicate that President Clinton had leaned on the Saudis to help him go into exile. So it seems that that system is working out again, and it’s unfortunate, because you never set — I mean, rule law will never take hold as long as we keep giving safe passage to people who violate and abrogate the constitution.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, one of the neighbors of Pakistan that is clearly glad about these developments is Afghanistan. The government in Afghanistan has been highly critical of President Musharraf’s efforts in terms of combating terrorism. What do you think will be the impact of these changes on the battle against al-Qaeda?
ALI AHSAN: You know, I think, in the longer term, it will have a positive impact. You can’t expect — what the US has done is it’s relied on an individual, and not on a population, to fight this fight. It’s messier to rely on democracy. It’s messier because these decisions take more time. But once taken, once people are involved in the fight, it will be a stronger and a more lasting decision.
And what I would have — I would argue, and the lawyers of Pakistan argue, that the best weapon in the fight against extremism and the war against terrorism and terrorists is not an individual dictator who’s siding with you because you’re providing him with weapons and ammunitions for his own — and propping up his regime, but a population with enforceable rights, a population who has a stake in this fight. And what the people of Pakistan haven’t had under Musharraf are the kinds of rights that are enforceable that give them a stake in the state of Pakistan, rather than aspiring to sort of even a brutal form of justice promised by the extremists. And what the lawyers have stood up for and the judges in Pakistan who were deposed by Musharraf stood up for was an alternative version where everyone was accountable to a higher — to a constitution and to the law. And what the hope is, and what I’m coming back to in terms of holding Musharraf accountable, if you can demonstrate that there are clearly applied laws and no one can violate them, no one can get away with that, it gives people something higher to aspire towards and gives them a stake in this fight.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Ahsan, what would you say are the major crimes of Musharraf since 1999, since the coup?
ALI AHSAN: I don’t think we have enough time to go over all the major crimes, but just to take the most recent ones, I mean, in 1999, he overthrew an elected, democratically elected, prime minister, jailed him, exiled him, ruled as military chief. He has done a number of things, such as taking Pakistani citizens and taking them into custody and handing them over to foreign governments, where they are tortured, detained, sent to Guantanamo. And whatever their guilt or innocence, they have not been —-
AMY GOODMAN: You mean like handing them over to the United States?
ALI AHSAN: To the United States, including. The point, as a Pakistani citizen, is I am offended that a fellow citizen, whatever the guilt and innocence, isn’t provided due process of law. If you want -— they need to be extradited, well, charge them and then extradite them. But frankly, no civilized country should be extraditing their citizens. They should be tried and punished for whatever the crime. And a lot of those people were thought to be innocent, or at least not guilty, of the crimes they were accused of.
Most recently, the most egregious crime that I find was in November, when his reelection, which was highly questionable and not possible under the current constitution of Pakistan. He suspended the constitution, fired sixty of the 104 senior judges of the Pakistan judiciary, not just fired them, but he also arrested them with their families, kept them in detention, under illegal verbal orders, for five months. Now, this is not just an illegal act, it’s a criminal act, that someone in this day and age can imprison the chief — the sitting chief justice of Pakistan for five months. Imagine, for instance, the equivalent here would be that Chief Justice Roberts — I don’t think he would do that, given his leanings — but is about to declare all the actions related to Guantanamo and CIA torture illegal, and President George Bush acts preemptively and not only dismisses the Supreme Court, but places Chief Justice Roberts under custody for five months with his wife and children. And this is what he has done. I mean, these are things that people, law-abiding citizens, people who believe in the rule of law — I do not believe we can let it stand that people can get away with this. And unfortunately, Musharraf is going to get away with this.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the Pakistani military? Obviously, it supported Musharraf’s original coup, and then he resigned first as head of the military. What will be their role in this transition now, once again, to a legitimate ruler in Pakistan?
ALI AHSAN: Well, it’s critical, and it’s very unfortunate. I mean, the Pakistan military will gain great plaudits for not taking part in this whole exercise overtly. Now, the Pakistan military is deeply involved in the fabric of political life, even after withdrawing. They have deeply vested interests. They have corporate interests. So, they are involved. But their involvement in this present juncture has been decisive in the sense that they have not come out affirmatively for their former chief of the army, for Musharraf, and therefore it has allowed the civilian government the room to maneuver to move him out.
However, apart from, we mentioned, the role of the American, British and the Saudi governments, I think the role of the military is said to be key as well, that they don’t — didn’t want Musharraf to be impeached for a couple of reasons. One, even like, you know — even a discredited general, even a person that they dislike — and many in the army dislike Musharraf or where he has led them, especially in the junior rank — it’s very hard for them to stomach civilians cashiering a former chief of the army. It just doesn’t behoove the status of the army, which is the overlord of Pakistan. You know, however despicable the general may be, he is still a general. Now, the second part of it is, many of the actions he took were as head of the army, and an impeachment process would not only question him, but also the actions supported by the army, and the army didn’t want to be dragged through the muck in this. So I think it is a mutually convenient arrangement between the army and foreign powers.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what this means for your father — your father, the first lawyer jailed — what happened to him then and what it means for the whole lawyers’ movement? Why was he jailed? When was it?
ALI AHSAN: He was jailed on November 3rd, when martial law was declared by Musharraf and he fired all the judges. My father, who at that time was fighting a case, was representing the lawyers’ movement and an opposing presidential candidate before the supreme court, arguing that General Musharraf, as head of the army, was not allowed by the constitution to stand for president. And as it seemed that the supreme court was going to rule against General Musharraf in that case, he preemptively arrested all the judges, fired them and arrested them, and then also arrested my father, who was at that moment having a press conference, holding a press conference, denouncing the move which had been — was being reported in the press.
Now, he was kept initially in solitary confinement for about three months — three weeks, I’m sorry, which was a difficult time for us, because we didn’t really know where he was. And then — I will admit that there were members of Congress here, amongst many other people and the members of the media, who spoke up on his behalf and of other lawyers, which at least allowed us to locate him. So, while I criticize the US administration, there are members — there are elements within the government, the broader government, who have been very supportive in the process, the democratic process in Pakistan.
What it means for the lawyers now is sort of unclear. Their guiding principle is, and what they’re fighting for is, the reinstatement of the judges who were fired by General Musharraf, the sixty judges, including the populist and independent chief justice of the Supreme Court. At this moment, we have our fingers crossed, because what the whole process, as it unfolded, was, the coalition — heads of the Pakistani coalition declared about two weeks ago that they would go for to impeach President Musharraf, and immediately after his impeachment they would restore the judges. So we wait to see if that was just a hollow promise and that they will perhaps try and coast on the euphoria of cashiering General Musharraf and getting rid him, or will they actually lead to substantive change in getting the judges back? The lawyers, my father included, have issued a deadline for mid-September by which they say if the judges are not restored — because the coalition has promised in the past to restore the judges and has gone back on those pledges. So they’re going to wait and see.
Having said that, I’m sure there’s tremendous euphoria, because the signature slogan of the lawyers’ movement, while they marched for the judges, their signature slogan was "Go, Musharraf, go." So in that sense, there is some, you know, vindication on that count, even though he will not be tried for the crimes and misdemeanors that he’s guilty of.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Ahsan, could Musharraf have stayed in power as long as he had if he hadn’t gotten the billions of dollars from the United States and been supported by the US? And McCain and Barack Obama’s policies, are they different, as far as you can see?
ALI AHSAN: You know, absolutely not. There is no way that Musharraf could have stayed in power this long and with this absolute undiluted authority, were it not for the US. And unfortunately, there’s a history to it. You know, our last military ruler, who ruled throughout the ’80s, was General Zia-ul-Haq, who conveniently took over just as the Afghan jihad started and therefore received billions in military aid from the United States at that time. And while, for instance, my father, at that time a lawyer, a youngish lawyer and democracy activist, languished in his witness prisons, he was received by President Reagan with a twenty-one-gun salute on the White House lawns.
AMY GOODMAN: Ul-Haq, not your father.
ALI AHSAN: Zia-ul-Haq, yes. No, I don’t think my father would ever merit that sort of a treatment. He speaks up for principles that the United States aspires — professes but does not like to practice, outside its borders at least, and sometimes not even within its borders. But what — so he would not have lasted this long, simply because what has propped him over the years has been the gusher of American aid, which has now amounted into the billions of dollars, which really didn’t go into — it went to the military, and it, one, kept the military happy, which is the primary constituency of the General, and two, conferred on him an international legitimacy that all third world dictators sort of tend to need and crave, especially when internally they’re unpopular.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And presumably now with the president of the senate taking over, they could immediately restore the judges, couldn’t they?
ALI AHSAN: That’s what we hope, and that’s what we’re looking for. One of the coalition partners, the junior coalition partner, the party of Nawaz Sharif, has been very explicit on it and has sort of been standing firm on this agenda, and they have said that their agreement informally is — they use the word “immediate” in the written agreement that they announced two weeks ago, but they said that for them it meant three days. So we’ll be watching very closely in the next three days.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Ahsan, I want to thank you for being with us, New York-based Pakistani lawyer. His father, Aitzaz Ahsan, was a leader — is a leader of the lawyers’ movement and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan. Ali Ahsan was formerly a speechwriter for Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon. He left on Friday.