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Under House Arrest, Pakistani Human Rights Leader Asma Jahangir Speaks Out on Musharraf’s Crackdown

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Asma Jahangir is the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and is the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion. She was among the first people rounded up in the state of emergency declared by General Pervez Musharraf. She joins us on the line from her home in Lahore, where she remains under house arrest. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called on President Musharraf to step down Tuesday. She vowed never to serve under him in any future government. The announcement came as Bhutto remained under house arrest in Lahore, where she has come to lead a march to Islamabad to protest the state of emergency Musharraf declared on November 3rd. Bhutto said she could no longer work with a military ruler who had declared de facto martial law, locked up her supporters by the thousands, refused to resign as army chief and reneged on promises to put Pakistan on a democratic path.

Bhutto also reached out to her main political rivals, including Islamist alliance leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed and, as well, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, to form a united front to force Musharraf from power.

Bhutto’s announcement seemingly ends the hopes of a power-sharing deal between her and Musharraf that was strongly backed by the United States. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is scheduled to travel to Pakistan for talks with Musharraf later in the week.

Meanwhile, a dozen human rights groups on Tuesday urged President Bush to cut off military aid to Pakistan. The groups include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Carter Center.

Asma Jahangir is the chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion. She was among the first people rounded up in the state of emergency. She joins us now on the phone from her home in Lahore, where she remains under house arrest.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you describe your circumstances? It looks like we have lost contact with Asma Jahangir. We’re going to go to a break. We’ll try to remake contact with her. Coming up after that on Democracy Now!, we’re going to be talking about what’s happening in Somalia. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Asma Jahangir, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe where you are now? And what does it mean to be under house arrest, Asma?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, I was put under house arrest the day the emergency was declared, which means my house has been declared as a jail. I cannot go out, and no one can come and see me. And otherwise, I am alright, and I am at home. That is what it means, but, you know, obviously you’re cut off.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there military or police outside your home enforcing this?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Yes, there is police all around my house and inside the house, as well. They have to ensure that no one comes in and also that I don’t leave. There have been some people who have jumped house arrest, so they are particularly watchful.

AMY GOODMAN: Asma Jahangir, describe what is your reaction to what is happening right now in Pakistan.

ASMA JAHANGIR: Sorry, say that again. I couldn’t hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your reaction to what is happening right now in Pakistan.

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, I — personally, I feel and I think that now political parties are more and more, and their leadership, looking at the pulse of the people and believing that it is no longer possible to have any kind of dialogue with General Musharraf, because he is not in a frame of mind to give up power at all. It’s now time for him to do so. His popularity is extremely low. He has been extremely ruthless with people here. And there is a kind of a resentment also here with the perception that the U.S.A. is micromanaging things simply to keep him — give him the lifelines.

AMY GOODMAN: He says he is fighting the rise of extreme Islamist terror. Your response to that?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, that’s one of the reasons that a lot of the civil society that is out here in opposition to Musharraf, which is a very progressive civil society, by and large, lawyers who are secular-minded and progressive, journalists, and other people of civil society, we believe that General Musharraf’s policy on combating terrorism has been [inaudible]. It has not had any [inaudible] to it. And people resent the fact that in his last period, Talibanization in Pakistan has crept into our society and in many cities. We are of the considered opinion that he is too distracted and too busy amassing power, rather than having a courageous policy and taking public opinion with him to combat terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the sacking of, the firing of Iftikhar Chaudry, the Chief Justice? Why was he fired, and what is his significance in the rising opposition to General Musharraf?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, the Chief Justice, he was appointed by Musharraf himself, after Musharraf had kicked out the previous chief justice along with five very senior judges of the Supreme Court. And things were fine ’til, I think, the Chief Justice took up a few cases that were controversial.

The first one was the privatization of the steel mill. And very senior lawyers were representing the union. It was very apparent in open court that there had been — nepotism had been used. So it was not just the Chief Justice, but the entire bench, declared that the privatization of the steel mill had to be regularized.

Subsequently, the Chief Justice took up the case of disappeared people, who were in hundreds, and that irritated the government even more, to the extent that when he took up this case, which was the main case on the 8th of March, he was removed on the 9th of March.

AMY GOODMAN: And the position right now of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, can you describe the stance that she is taking and what significance that has?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, she is, as you know, under house arrest, and I have not had the occasion to talk to her personally ever since she has returned. But there is obviously a general perception that she was talking to the general. She has now — first, after having denied it — she has agreed that she was. And we see that she was under a lot of pressure by the international community to forge some kind of an alliance with the ruling party so that there could be an easy transition to democratic rule.

Having arrived here, she has understood, because she’s a very shrewd politician, that the General and his core crew of people are in no mood to allow any other players in this system of politics. She obviously has had also personal threats. We don’t know whether they are genuinely by religious extremists or all being played out by the government itself. She also has realized that there is utterly dismay in the civil society, and they are not willing to have any more patience with General Musharraf, who has given commitments time and again and stepped back, only to come back and be more oppressive.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role of the United States, the continued support by the Bush administration? Albeit late, there has been criticism from Condoleezza Rice of Musharraf. But the role of the U.S. in supporting financially, and otherwise, Pakistan and Musharraf?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, let me say that people here actually believe that whatever goes over, when it will take place, it will be decided in Washington, which is rather unfortunate and sad, because it makes people very complacent. In the last two weeks, there has been more, you know, openness towards looking at U.S. as a partner of people, rather than a partner of dictatorship.

So I think that if the U.S. really now — really is a player here, which is quite obvious, takes a more balanced approach, rather than go all out for Musharraf, regardless of his massive unpopularity, finds a solution to future democracy in Pakistan, because democracy simply doesn’t mean hollow voting and rigged voting. That is not acceptable anymore. People are rather awakened. People know their rights. And so, they are not going to accept a sham election anymore. They have to ensure not only elections, that they are free and fair, but that it is in an atmosphere where fundamental rights are there, people are out of jail, and leadership itself is out of jail, media is free. So I think that they will have to support steps towards democracy, rather than insist that Musharraf stay on regardless of his actions, which have been extremely unpopular in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Imran Khan, the cricketer, who has now been arrested?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Sorry, I can’t hear you at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Imran Khan —

ASMA JAHANGIR: [inaudible] repeat that.

AMY GOODMAN: The arrest of Imran Khan, the cricketer, who has now been arrested.

ASMA JAHANGIR: Yes, I only have secondhand information through media here and through my own daughter, who keeps coming in and out of the house. But apparently he did want to lead a student demonstration, where he was not really welcomed very much.

Imran Khan is a critic of General Musharraf. He has very little following in his own party, and sometimes he appears to, you know, not understand that religious extremism can be very destructive for this country. So he is a bit confused there. He is also a bit confused whether extremism and democracy can go together or not.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Asma Jahangir from her home. She’s the chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She is under house arrest. She’s also the U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of religion. Asma Jahangir, you have said in a letter from your home that General Musharraf “has lost his marbles.” Describe what you mean.

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, if you look at his recent press statements and his interviews, I think anybody would agree with that statement. He, in fact, challenged lawyers to tell him whether he has done anything unconstitutional, a man who throws away the Constitution twice, insists that judges take an oath to his loyalty, and then he throws a challenge to lawyers in this country to point out to him where he has violated the Constitution.

Plus, he continues to say that this is his third phase and this third phase of governance is for democracy. And ironically, the people he arrests are those who are pro-democratic forces.

He continues to say that if he was not there, that the whole country would go to the dogs, in a way. And today’s statement, he has also said that he has done this measure because it’s a failed state or it’s getting to be a failed state. Well, he doesn’t realize that if the country is going to be a failed state, the people who are responsible for it are, first of all and primarily, those who are ruling. I mean, he certainly has ruled with an iron fist and been, you know, in charge of everything. So, who should go if the country is failing and it’s becoming a failed state? What action does he take? Doesn’t resign himself, but puts everybody in prison — doesn’t that sound to you very contradictory?

AMY GOODMAN: You have also written from your home that you are fortunate to be under house arrest, while your colleagues are suffering. Explain.

ASMA JAHANGIR: That is correct. I am fortunate that I — only my liberty has been — well, my liberty has been taken away and I must fight for it, but that physically I am at least in my own house. Many of my colleagues, I saw images of them being beaten up brutally on the roads, inside the coops, and this continues to happen every day. Every single day, lawyers are picked up. Even yesterday, very senior lawyers in Karachi, whom I know very well, were taken to jail. A large number of lawyers are underground. They are either in jail, underground or in police stations. So in that respect, I think that I find myself more fortunate in the position that I am.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s been unusual for people in the United States to see the video images of lawyers in suits by the hundreds and thousands taking to the streets in Pakistan. How unusual is it for Pakistan?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Sorry, how?

AMY GOODMAN: How unusual is it for Pakistan?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, I think it is unusual. It’s not that lawyers have not protested, and lawyers have always been fighting for the rule of law. But the kind of unanimity and the kind of unity we saw this time was, I think, unprecedented.

Plus, this is the first time that a large number of judges have refused to take oath under the PCO, which has not happened before. The majority of the judges, in fact, have refused. This is the first time that any dictator in Pakistan — and, believe me, they’ve done enough damage — has actually arrested judges of superior courts.

So I think that General Musharraf has gone too far in indignifying people’s rights, and therefore I think the lawyers will continue to react. Plus, now, two days ago, he passed a law saying that lawyers’ licenses will be canceled by members of the judiciary. Having packed the courts with his own judges, he now will use the judges to victimize lawyers. He has also again passed a law, which amends the Army Act, so that civilians, even when they express concerns about the government, can be tried under military court.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Asma Jahangir, there have been a number of groups that have called for the stopping of military aid to Pervez Musharraf, like Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, like the Carter Center. Do you think that the position of the United States right now could be compared to Iran at the end of the ’70s, with the continued U.S. support of the Shah, before he fell, in Iran?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, I wouldn’t exactly compare it to that, because every situation is different. I can assure you that in Pakistan, there is no Khomeini in the wings, in the first place. And secondly, there is more constructive civil society in Pakistan. But as far as the US is concerned, yes, it is in that way comparable, that they continue, despite seeing the writing on the wall, to support a dictator who is now absolutely unacceptable to the people, which means that as long as he stays, there will be a crackdown and there will be protest.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the U.S. should cut off military aid to Pakistan?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, I don’t know. That is their decision. But, certainly, if this military aid is being used to suppress its own people, then I suppose that it should end. But if this military aid is used in a more positive way to deal with those who break the law, then I think that that should continue. But those who authorize and those who control it have to be very professional. At the moment, we find that all generals are playing golf, have deep pockets and are becoming less and less professional.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Asma Jahangir, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, speaking from her home in Lahore, where she is under house arrest. Be safe.

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