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(New York) - The Pakistani government’s violent repression of an opposition party rally demonstrated the ongoing oppression of political dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. In the run-up to a Pakistan People’s Party rally scheduled for December 21, General Pervez Musharraf’s government arrested hundreds of the party’s PPP supporters, including several legislators.

The aborted demonstration was called by Asif Ali Zardari, husband of former prime minister and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chair Benazir Bhutto, who announced he would lead a rally in the capital Islamabad and its twin city Rawalpindi. Zardari had been out of prison since Pakistan’s Supreme Court granted him bail on November 22. However, a Karachi court cancelled his bail after he boarded an Islamabad-bound flight and he was re-arrested upon arrival.

Prior to Zardari’s arrival in Islamabad, law enforcement agencies had attempted to seal off the airport. Police and paramilitary forces arrested hundreds of PPP activists trying to reach Islamabad’s airport to receive Zardari, and police and PPP supporters clashed at several points on the airport road. Hundreds of party activists still managed to converge outside the airport. There, police in riot gear fired tear gas shells and baton charged the crowd.

Among those beaten by the police were PPP legislators who had attempted to prevent the police from attacking the crowd. Eleven PPP activists were seriously injured, allegedly as a result of excessive force by the police. Scores of PPP supporters remain in custody without charge. Police snatched camera from photographers and beat several journalists with batons.

“Musharraf spoke a lot about political progress on his recent visits with Bush and Blair to Washington, but back in Pakistan it’s business as usual with baton charges and harassment of political opponents,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Pakistani government should immediately release all those who were peaceful protestors at the airport and fully prosecute police who used excessive force.”

Zardari had been accused of corruption during Bhutto’s term as prime minister, but his lone conviction was later reversed because of governmental interference with the judicial process. By December 2001, Zardari had been granted bail in all cases pending against him.

However, in a move apparently designed to prevent his release, the Musharraf government filed a new case accusing Zardari of evading import duty on a second-hand car. On November 22, the Supreme Court granted him bail in this case and he was released.

Though Zardari’s release was ordered by the Supreme Court, government functionaries publicly stated that he had been released as part of a “deal” with the PPP that would culminate in the party’s recognition of the institutionalized role of the military in Pakistani politics. This would allow General Musharraf to hold the dual roles of army chief and president in exchange for a role in government and the dropping of charges against Bhutto, Zardari, and others.

On November 23, Arbab Ghulam Rahim, chief minister of the southern Sindh province, told journalists that had there been no understanding between the government and the PPP concerning Zadari, “we would have kept him in jail on charges of cattle theft if necessary.”

Zardari’s case is just one of the more prominent instances of the government misusing the judicial process to silence political opponents. Javed Hashmi, president of the opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, in April was sentenced to 23 years in prison for reading out an anti-Musharraf letter to assembled journalists. Hashmi was tried in prison in a trial that did not meet international or Pakistani fair trial standards.

Similarly, Yousuf Raza Gillani, former Speaker of the National Assembly, was convicted in September on charges of corruption and misuse of authority and sentenced to 10 years in prison, fined 100 million Pakistani rupees (US$165,000) and disqualified from holding any public office for 10 years. Gillani, a senior member of the PPP, was accused of providing jobs to 339 low-income persons while in office without following proper procedure. His conviction followed his refusal to leave the PPP and join a breakaway, pro-Musharraf faction of the PPP.

“If Musharraf is serious about human rights, the rule of law and a return to democracy, he needs to allow the courts to make independent decisions about guilt and innocence,” said Adams. “These are not matters for governments or armies.”

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