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ISLAMABAD will be sealed off so that President Musharraf can welcome US President George Bush to his capital. Bush is making the journey to compliment and compensate Musharraf on services rendered in the ‘war on terror’.

Musharraf is hosting Bush to bask in the glory of a renewed alliance with the United States and to strengthen his faltering grip on power. Nowhere is human rights on the agenda.

In the run up to the trip, Bush has praised general Musharraf’s “vision for a democratic Pakistan” and his commitment to “free and open elections” Unless Bush knows something that Pakistanis do not, it appears that the continued disregard and undermining of the Pakistani Constitution, the marginalization of mainstream political parties, and the failure to hold a credible election is an odd formula for a democratic Pakistan and the Bush administration’s broader commitment to “fostering democracy in the Muslim world.”

The skewed view of President Musharraf held by Bush is certainly based on shared values. But rather than the shared value of democracy that Bush likes to speak about, what Musharraf and Bush have in common is a shared commitment to the priority, above all else, of the ‘war on terror.’ Bush has been gushing about Musharraf’s role therein, appreciating his “commitment to joining the world in dealing with Islamic radicals who will murder innocent people to achieve an objective.”

Given the conduct of the Bush administration in this context, the US president’s appreciation of the Musharraf government is hardly surprising. International human rights law contains no more basic prohibition than the absolute, unconditional ban on torture and “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” To date, the Bush administration’s understanding of the term “torture” remains unclear. As Human Rights Watch has noted: In March 2005, Porter Goss, the CIA director, justified water-boarding, a sanitized term for an age-old, terrifying torture technique in which the victim is made to believe that he is about to drown.

In testimony before the US Senate in August 2005, the former deputy White House counsel, Timothy Flanigan, would not even rule out using mock executions. Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence and one of those who oversees the CIA, explained to human rights groups in August 2005 that US interrogators have a duty to use all available authority to fight terrorism. “We’re pretty aggressive within the law,” he explained. “We’re going to live on the edge.”

As Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram have shown, the US has not lived on the edge of legality, it has clearly and frequently crossed it into territory previously thought to have been the preserve of rogue governments. In December last year, Human Rights Watch listed 26 documented persons being held as “ghost detainees” at undisclosed locations outside the United States. They are being held indefinitely and incommunicado, without legal rights or access to counsel. Most of them were arrested in Pakistan and some may still be detained here. The US used to denounce “disappearances”. It now appears to be engaging in them.

In January 2005, the Bush administration began claiming the power to use cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment so long as the victim was a non-American held outside the United States. In December last year, under political pressure, President Bush was forced to withdraw his opposition to legislation sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain banning cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of terrorist suspects. However, the US is the only government in the world known to have claimed this power openly, as a matter of official policy, and to pretend that it is lawful

In Pakistan, the US has also found a willing partner to employ what the FBI describes as “locally acceptable forms of interrogation.” The routine use of torture in Pakistan by both civilian law enforcement and military agencies is well documented. What is surprising is the use of torture by the Pakistani security and intelligence services to interrogate both US and other foreign citizen suspects in the country.

For example, during eight months of illegal detention in Pakistan, Zain and Kashan Afzal, US citizens of Pakistani descent, were repeatedly tortured, allegedly by Pakistani authorities. During this period, FBI agents questioned the brothers on at least six occasions without intervening to end the torture. Instead, they threatened the men with being sent to Guantanamo Bay if they did not confess to involvement in terrorism. They were released in April 2005 only after Human Rights Watch intervened in their case.

Instead of publicly condemning this behaviour President Bush is coming to Islamabad to grant legitimacy to the “democratic” vision of his Pakistani counterpart and award him a Bilateral Investment Treaty. The promotion of trade and commerce between the United States and Pakistan is commendable. But Bush’s silence on human rights and the US government’s outsourcing of torture will bring nothing but a poverty of dignity to both.

Ali Dayan Hasan is South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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