Deadly Suicide Bombing in Pakistan Ahead of Election Marred by Crackdown on Activists, Journalists

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Voters in Pakistan go to the polls next week, but the run-up to the election has already been marred by deadly terrorist attacks, a crackdown on activists and journalists, hundreds of arrests, and accusations of widespread interference by the military. On Friday, a massive suicide bombing at an election campaign gathering in the southwestern province of Balochistan killed 149 people. Hours afterward, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested at Lahore’s airport as they returned to Pakistan from London in efforts to bolster Sharif’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. We go to Lahore to talk to journalist and writer Munizae Jahangir, host and executive producer of a political talk show on one of Pakistan’s leading networks.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where voters go to the polls next week. The run-up to the election has already been marred by deadly terrorist attacks, a crackdown on activists and journalists, hundreds of arrests, and accusations of widespread interference by the military. On Friday, a massive suicide bombing at an election campaign gathering in the southwestern province of Balochistan killed 149 people and injured another 200, making it the third-deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history. The bombing targeted an election rally of the Balochistan Awami Party. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Among those killed was a Balochistan provincial assembly candidate, Siraj Raisani. This is the slain candidate’s brother, Haji Lashkari Raisani.

HAJI LASHKARI RAISANI: [translated] These kinds of incidents have been happening in our country’s history. These incidents are condemned verbally, and sympathies are also offered verbally. But no solid measures are taken to prevent them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The attack in Balochistan was the third such attack on election rallies in a week. Hours after the deadly bombing, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested at Lahore’s airport as they returned to Pakistan from London in efforts to bolster Sharif’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, one of the leading contenders in next week’s elections. Their arrest came after Sharif, a third-term prime minister, and his daughter were convicted in absentia in a corruption case that Sharif’s supporters say was manufactured by the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

AMY GOODMAN: PML-N members allege their main rival, Pakistan’s Movement for Justice, the anti-corruption party led by former cricket star Imran Khan, has the backing of the Army, which has ruled the country for nearly half its 70-year history. If the vote goes ahead as planned, it will be only the second time Pakistan has made a transition from one civilian government to another.

For more, we go directly to Lahore, Pakistan, to speak with journalist and writer Munizae Jahangir. She’s the host and executive producer of a political talk show on one of Pakistan’s leading networks, and the daughter of Pakistan’s leading human rights activist and lawyer, who died earlier this year, Asma Jahangir. She’s on the board of Asma Jahangir Foundation and a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! And since we haven’t spoken since, our condolences on the death of your remarkable mother.

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, thank you. And I want to thank all your team for the beautiful program that you did after she passed away. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Munizae, if you can talk about what is happening in your country right now, in Pakistan? If you can begin with this third-deadliest attack, that killed well over a hundred people, and then fit it into the context of this election that’s coming up next week?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, of course, this was the third-deadliest attack in Balochistan, in Mastung, which killed over 150 people. And at the moment, the death toll is even rising as we speak, because there are injured, those who are critically injured, and we’ve just had a few deaths in the last past week.

I was at an election rally of Haroon Bilour, the Awami National Party, the secular party, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a day before he was attacked and was killed in a suicide attack. And his party, at that time, blamed the other opponents. They said, “We cannot—you know, we will have to investigate them in the next few days.” And I recently interviewed their leader, Asfandyar Wali Khan, who said that only one party was given a level playing field in this election, and he named Imran Khan. Of course, the ANP is contesting a direct election against Imran Khan’s PTI, which is also very popular and had formed government in the previous government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But he complains that the other political parties are not being given the level playing field. He said that he was contesting an election against the Taliban in 2013, and in this election, again, you know, the Taliban have already announced that they are going to target his party, and therefore he believes that his party is not being given this kind of level playing field. He also says that since his party is being targeted, and not Imran Khan’s, Imran Khan has gone ahead with political campaigns.

We have seen, with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father, Asif Ali Zardari, just before the elections, there were cases that were brought up against them. They were accountability—by the accountability court here in Pakistan. And those cases were later postponed 'til after the elections, because that was the plea that Asif Ali Zardarfi and his sister took. However, it seems that that sword hangs over their head. They have also not been able to campaign. And Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called off his party's campaign after the attack in Balochistan.

Similarly with the Pakistan Muslim League Noon, which is led by Nawaz Sharif, they were in government, in the federal government, in 2013, and he has returned to be arrested with his daughter at the airport. What we face—and I was on that flight which brought Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, back from Abu Dhabi to Lahore. There were many journalists on that flight, local TV journalists, and we were not allowed to air any of Nawaz Sharif’s comment on our airwaves, on our TV talk shows. We were told that if we do air his comments or his interview, our TV channels will be blocked out for at least one week. Therefore, no private TV channel or the state TV channel aired the homecoming of Nawaz Sharif. There was one journalist whose show was pulled off air because he showed the kind of support that Nawaz Sharif had from his political workers, who were getting together to welcome him at the airport. His show was taken off air. He did protest on Twitter and then went back on air. So, at that time, there was a complete clampdown on the electronic media. Nawaz Sharif’s statements were not allowed to be aired. His supporters were not allowed to be shown. And the police, according to the police, they arrested around 150 political workers. According to the PML-N, they arrested 300 workers on the 13th of July, the day Nawaz Sharif was returning. They also slapped the leaders of the PML-N with an Anti-Terrorism Act. They charged them with an FIR.

Therefore, it seems that this election, with all political parties—the ANP, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML-N—are saying that they have been denied a level playing field, that there has been pre-poll rigging, and only one political party has been given the level playing field—or has been given a free hand to contest this election.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Munizae, can you explain who—you’re saying that you were not allowed, as other networks were not allowed, to air Nawaz Sharif’s interviews or his return to Pakistan. Not allowed by whom?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, it’s very obvious that it was not allowed by the establishment. And it is very clear to us right now that the military did not want the current TV channels to air any of the Nawaz Sharif footage. It has been openly said, by many journalists now, on the ground. What we have now is a caretaker government. So, in Pakistan, it’s not—you know, elections go from one government to the other. In between, there’s a caretaker government for three months, that ensures a free and fair election. It seems that the caretaker government is absent. When they were asked why we were not allowed to air this, they said that this is not in our domain. The PEMRA, which is the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, we passed an ordinance. And by that, PEMRA has become independent. And so we asked, “Well, PEMRA has become independent, and it has slapped all these bans on the media, so what do you mean PEMRA has become independent?” So, PEMRA has now—they say, has been given complete authority. And PEMRA keeps on sending us notices which say that you cannot say anything against the judiciary and the armed forces of Pakistan. They quote a constitutional provision, which does exist in the constitution of Pakistan but has never been used before. So they use that in order to quash dissent. And I think that’s the real problem, that although we do not see the military come out in the forefront, there are organizations that are being used by the military. For example, PEMRA is one, and it is being accused of being used by the military.

On the other hand, other political parties, other political leaders have accused Imran Khan of using airspace that was denied to them, or facilities by the Army that were denied to them. Imran Khan actually used the Nur Khan air base, which belongs to the military and is only reserved for heads of state, and it is only reserved for the military. But he was allowed to use that, and other political parties, other political leaders were not allowed to use that.

On the other hand, we have also seen, with Haroon Bilour, the leader who was killed by the ANP, he was not given protection, simply because the chief justice at the time, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, gave an order saying that all protections should be brought back and should be retracted, simply because politicians don’t need protection. So he was not given the protection that he needed. He was getting threats. He’s somebody who was attacked before. His uncle had been killed by a suicide bomber. His father had been killed by a suicide bomber. However, he was not given the due protection. And his party believes that if he was given that protection, then he would still be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the U.S. role in Pakistan. In January—I think it was President Trump’s first tweet of 2018—he tweeted, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Those were Trump’s first words, in a tweet, of 2018. Can you talk about the U.S. role in Pakistan and how it affects your politics and your elections?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, the U.S. has interfered a lot in Pakistani politics. It has been monitoring very closely what has been happening in Pakistan. We all know that the United States looks at Pakistan from the prism of Afghanistan, so their focus has really been on trying to clamp down on militant outfits that are fighting this war in Afghanistan.

However, what is interesting in this election is, I’m sure that you must have all been reading, that there are extremist Islamist groups for the first time that are taking part in this election. And one of them is Hafiz Saeed. He’s banned by the United States. His party, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is banned by the United Nations, because it’s alleged that he had a role to play in the Mumbai attacks. The other party is Allah-o-Akbar party. They had a very successful protest in Islamabad. They pretty much shut down Islamabad and Rawalpindi. And it was only after the Army brokered a deal between them and the government, because they were protesting against the government, demanding that the law minister resign, that they were allowed, you know, to go back, and they were not even charged with the damage they caused to public property and how they beat up policemen.

So, it is these two political parties who are taking part in the election, and this is part of a policy of the military to mainstream militant outfits. When I interviewed the defense minister—the former defense minister, Khurram Dastgir, of Nawaz Sharif’s government, he said that that was a major bone of contention between the military and between the Nawaz Sharif government, of whether to allow these extremist militant groups to enter the mainstream politics or not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Munizae, I want to go to one of the leading Pakistani journalists and publishers, Hameed Haroon, who publishes the Dawn newspaper. He spoke to the BBC earlier this week in a widely circulated and controversial interview. He spoke to BBC _HARDtalk_’s Stephen Sackur, who asked him whether he believes the Pakistani military is favoring particular candidates in the upcoming elections.

HAMEED HAROON: I think there’s a preferred face of Pakistan they’d like to see.

STEPHEN SACKUR: Who?

HAMEED HAROON: The security forces and the establishment.

STEPHEN SACKUR: No, no. Who? Who do they favor, in your opinion?

HAMEED HAROON: I think that at this point there appears to be an attempt to favor second-level string leaders and a patch-up coalition, which would rule with direction from the deep state.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Munizae, that’s Hameed Haroon talking about the deep state. Now, you talked earlier about the fact that the military is preventing—putting obstacles before other political parties, but Imran Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, is granted an exception. Could you explain why you think that is? What is Imran Khan’s relationship to the military?

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like our Democracy Now! stream to Pakistan is frozen. We’ll see if Munizae Jahangir, if it can—it looks like we’re going to have to leave that question there, but of course we will continue to cover the Pakistan elections. Munizae Jahangir is a Pakistani writer and journalist, host and executive producer of a political talk show on one of Pakistan’s leading networks. She’s the daughter of Pakistan’s leading human rights activist and lawyer, who died of a heart attack earlier this year, Asma Jahangir. She’s on the board of Asma Jahangir Foundation and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Yemen, with the remarkable PBS correspondent Jane Ferguson. Stay with us.

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