A crystallising movement

April 22, 2008

by Abbas Rashid, 17. November 2007

by Abbas Rashid, 
Daily Times, Tuesday, November 17th, 2007

Musharraf may well agree to some of the key demands being made. But there is a demand increasingly articulated by Pakistanis, including the two mainstream parties, whose critical nature should not be underestimated: the restoration of the dismissed judges.

 Amid the assault on democratic and liberal elements following from the imposition of the emergency on November 3, there are some signs of 'accommodation’ on the part of the Musharraf regime. As the National Assembly completed its tenure on November 15, the announcement of the caretaker government led by Mohammedmian Soomro was accompanied by the ending of Benazir Bhutto’s house arrest. For his part, the attorney general has indicated that Musharraf would remove his uniform before the end of the month and there was a report of amendments that may be made in the PCO in order to provide the president with the powers to amend or remove the provisions of emergency. However, these and similar measures are unlikely to defuse the widespread anger that accounts for Musharraf’s growing isolation.

As matters stand, the PPP leader has come round to the position of the other mainstream party, the PMLN, as well as a number of others that Musharraf is not acceptable as president with or without uniform. Together, the two key parties are likely to poll 60 to 70 percent of the vote in any free and fair election, if the recent IRI poll is anything to go by.

But such elections do not yet seem on the cards. Aside from the need for an acceptable Election Commission, there is the key issue of an independent judiciary. The majority of the judges of the superior judiciary have either not been asked or have refused to take another oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order. Lawyers protesting the emergency and the treatment of the judiciary have been rounded up in the hundreds and kept in abysmal conditions as they are shunted to different jails across the country. In a blatant attempt at intimidation, many were charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act. And, just so that the message was loud and clear the Army act of 1952 was also amended so that it could be applied retroactively to civilians charged with `anti-national’ activities. Many office bearers of bar associations remain behind bars with reports of particularly harsh treatment meted out to among others Aitzaz Ahsan, Muneer A Malik and Ali Ahmed Kurd.

A key rationale provided for the imposition of the emergency was the better prosecution of the war on terror. In this context, a strange claim made by the president during the course of his press conference was that that while the army had been ready for some time to move into the areas where the militants had been advancing, it was simply not `requisitioned’. It is difficult to figure out why such legal niceties prevented the army from taking more effective action in FATA as well as the settled areas of the NWFP, even as it obviously felt far less constrained in moving against Baloch nationalists, surely not a threat of the same magnitude.

More importantly, the president also accused the judiciary of acting irresponsibly in hampering the war on terror and illustrated his point by referring to the Supreme Court ruling in the Lal Masjid case. However, as some among the judges who refused to take oath under the PCO have pointed out, the division bench of the Supreme Court that passed strict orders including the rebuilding of Jamia Hafsa, release of those arrested, payment of compensation, etc comprised Justice Nawaz Abbasi and Justice Faqir Muhammad Khokhar, both of whom were administered oath under the PCO. This point needs to be clarified by the regime given its centrality to the stated rationale of the emergency.

In any case, from the Bench and the Bar the wave of anger and resentment, the feeling of enough being quite enough, has spread. With Benazir seemingly closing her doors on further negotiations with the general, the two mainstream parties along with others seem to be moving towards a joint front against Musharraf. And even as sections of the media have come back on air after being blocked for days, journalist associations have taken their protest to the streets.

Civil society activists have also come out in increasing numbers to protest, putting up with prison and house arrest. And after the unprecedented role of the Bar and the Bench in standing up for the rule of law, the entry into the scene of student protesters was again a surprise, as much to the regime as anyone else. That student activism should show signs of a comeback in institutions such as LUMS and FAST defies conventional wisdom. Whether it is some kind of a sense of noblesse oblige or the last straw syndrome, the ferment is unmistakable. The large student rally protesting the treatment of Imran Khan in Punjab University at the hands of the IJT on Thursday and the maltreatment by the police even of PTI women supporters may well provide further impetus to the phenomenon. Not least there are scores of websites and blogs that have sprung up around the world –such as chapatimystery.com, notagainneveragain.com and many others taking their cue perhaps from werenotafraid.com— with thousands of messages of solidarity and suggestions of support for the judges who have refused to take oath and the lawyers who continue to struggle.

External pressure too has been increasing. John Negroponte, US Deputy Secretary of State, is coming in to deliver the message that the uniform has to go and the emergency must be lifted. The Commonwealth has given a deadline of November 22 to this effect. Bar Associations around the world are showing solidarity with Pakistan’s lawyers for a movement that seems to have no precedent not just in Pakistan or South Asia but anywhere in the world.

Musharraf may well agree to some of the key demands being made. But there is a demand increasingly articulated by Pakistanis, including the two mainstream parties, whose critical nature should not be underestimated: the restoration of the dismissed judges. This has to be done if Pakistan is to finally turn the corner. Without an independent judiciary, neither fair elections nor democratic governance are achievable goals. And their absence would mean a weaker Pakistan that among other things will be less able to fight its war against extremism successfully.

Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers.