Government Must End Intimidation of Supreme Court, Threats of Martial Law
(New York) - The Pakistani government should end attempts to intimidate the country’s Supreme Court as it hears legal challenges to General Pervez Musharraf’s controversial October 6 re-election, Human Rights Watch said today.
Government ministers have repeatedly said that should the Supreme Court rule Musharraf’s election illegal, the military could suspend the constitution, impose martial law and fire the judges. On October 16, a day before the Supreme Court resumed hearings into the case, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Dr. Sher Afgan Khan Niazi stated: “The imposition of martial law can’t be ruled out if the Supreme Court decides that President Musharraf’s re-election is invalid.”
“Musharraf should publicly state that he will accept the decision of the Supreme Court and withdraw the threat of martial law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government is attempting to frighten the judiciary into submission and is holding Pakistan, its constitution and its people hostage to Musharraf’s desire to cling to power.”
Under the Pakistani constitution, a candidate for president cannot run for office until two years after retirement from a military position. Musharraf is presently the head of Pakistan’s army.
On September 28, the Supreme Court dismissed legal challenges to Musharraf holding the office of army chief and president on technical grounds, but it did not rule on the merits of Musharraf holding both offices simultaneously. On October 5, in response to further legal challenges, the court allowed the election process to move forward but said that the results of the election would be prevented from taking legal effect until it finished considering the challenges.
Pakistan’s constitution requires that the National Assembly, Senate and the four provincial assemblies elect the president. Musharraf was elected on October 6 by an indirect vote of national and provincial assembly members. Pakistan’s opposition parties resigned their seats or boycotted the election in protest, leaving only Musharraf’s supporters, who enjoy a majority in the electoral college, to elect him.
On September 26, Musharraf’s legal team told the Supreme Court that he was constitutionally entitled to hold both offices only until November 15. But shortly after the Supreme Court’s move to examine fresh challenges to his election, Musharraf appeared to renege on that position when he told supporters in Islamabad that he would remain army chief and president “until” the Supreme Court reached a final decision on his presidential bid.
“Musharraf seems to be giving the Pakistani people an impossible choice: ‘democracy’ if he succeeds in his bid to stay in power or martial law if the judiciary tries to prevent him from remaining in office,” said Adams. “After eight years of military rule, Pakistan needs legitimate parliamentary and presidential elections to get back on the path to genuine democratic rule.”
Since taking power in a 1999 coup, Musharraf has remained as army chief and president, even though the Pakistani constitution prohibits the chief of the army from holding political office. In 2003, Musharraf pledged to cede one of the posts by December 2004. But he publicly reneged on this pledge a year later.
As president, Musharraf has arbitrarily amended the Pakistani constitution to empower the presidency, sideline and weaken elected representatives, and formalize the role of the army in governance. Since the 1999 coup, the military has enjoyed impunity for abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, “disappearances,” arbitrary arrests and the persecution of political opponents.
Human Rights Watch called on Musharraf’s international supporters, particularly the US and UK governments, to urge an immediate return to constitutional civilian rule.
“The Bush administration’s continued support for a coup-maker holding onto office by his fingernails is pushing Pakistan into a growing crisis,” said Adams. “The question now is whether the US, Britain or Pakistan’s other allies will insist upon the rule of law in Pakistan or be seen by Pakistanis as supporters of an abusive military strongman.”