(New York) - Pakistan should immediately return to constitutional rule, restore fundamental rights and end its crackdown on the judiciary, lawyers, media, human rights activists and political opponents, Human Rights Watch said today.
General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani military ruler whose recent election as president had yet to be ratified by the Supreme Court, declared a state of emergency at 5 p.m. on November 3, 2007. Following the declaration, Pakistani authorities arrested hundreds, mostly judges, lawyers, and human rights activists. Musharraf has imposed sweeping censorship rules on the media. All private television channels and international media have been taken off the air.
On November 4, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz suggested that national elections scheduled for January 2008 may be postponed.
“On the pretext of fighting militants, General Musharraf has mounted a coup against Pakistan’s civil society,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Musharraf says the country needs emergency laws to fight fundamentalists, yet the crackdown is focused on the judiciary, lawyers, media and human rights activists. It’s clear this is aimed solely at keeping himself in power.”
On the evening of November 3, a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry convened to issue an order barring the government from proclaiming emergency rule and urging government functionaries not to implement emergency orders. These judges were forcibly removed from the Supreme Court premises by military troops and detained thereafter. Chaudhry, who has led efforts to establish an independent judiciary and had survived an attempt by Musharraf earlier this year to dismiss him, was summarily fired.
Only four of the Supreme Court’s 17 judges have taken an oath of allegiance to the Provisional Constitutional Order issued on November 3 by Musharraf, which suspended the constitution and gave Musharraf almost total power. At least 60 of 97 senior judges in Pakistan have also declined to take an oath. Many have been placed under detention to prevent them from resuming judicial duties.
“Musharraf has claimed he was building the rule of law, but in his single-minded determination to cling to power he has eviscerated the judiciary,” said Adams. “He has exposed himself as nothing more than a petty tyrant.”
Human Rights Watch called for the release of all political activists rounded up by the authorities. On November 4, Aziz said on Pakistan state television that more than 500 people have been arrested. This includes hundreds of lawyers across the country, including Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, office bearers and presidents of provincial bar associations, and virtually all leading lawyers associated with the movement for judicial independence that began on March 9 with the attempted ouster of Chaudhry as chief justice by Musharraf. While some lawyers have been placed in police custody, Human Rights Watch has learned that others, including Ali Ahmed Kurd, a senior lawyer from Balochistan, have been handed over to the military’s feared Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The ISI has a well-documented history of using torture on its political opponents.
The offices of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in the central city of Lahore were raided on November 4, and 60 of the country’s most prominent human rights activists were arrested as they attended a meeting. Police had no written orders and are claiming the right to detain those arrested for up to 90 days under the colonial-era Maintenance of Public Order Act. The detainees are being held at the police lock-up in Model Town (Block A), Lahore, and their families have not been allowed access to them.
Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the human rights commission and a United Nations Special Rapporteur, was served a 90-day detention order on the night of November 3. She remains under house arrest after her house was officially deemed a sub-jail.
Around 30 television news channels have gone off the air since November 3. Cable television operators told Human Rights Watch they were asked by the government to stop beaming all local and foreign news channels, except the state-controlled Pakistan Television. Hours later, Musharraf introduced curbs on the media through two decrees amending earlier ordinances barring the media from printing or broadcasting “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organ of the state.”
The print and electronic media have also been restrained from publishing any material that is likely to “jeopardize or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order.” Television discussions on anything which is deemed to be “false or baseless” by the regulatory authorities has also been banned.
Journalists have been repeatedly threatened and prevented from covering events following suspension of the constitution, had their equipment confiscated, and been warned that if they record footage of arrests or police raids, they will face arrest and incarceration.
Human Rights Watch urged the United States, Musharraf’s main patron, to end its support for Pakistan’s military government and to seek an urgent return to the rule of law and elected governance in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch welcomed the statement issued by the US embassy in Islamabad calling for the release of those detained and an end to censorship, and the statement from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the US would review its aid to Pakistan. “The United States has never put all of its chips on Musharraf,” she was quoted as saying. Musharraf ignored public calls by senior US government officials not to impose a state of emergency.
“This is as big a test for the Bush administration as it is for Musharraf,” said Adams. “Thus far, Washington’s long support for a military government has merely led to an unprecedented political crisis that could lead Pakistan to disaster, not least in the effort to address international terrorism.”