(New York) - Pakistan’s government under General Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule has expanded its crackdown on its critics by detaining hundreds of opposition activists from the country’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Human Rights Watch said today. When US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte arrives in Pakistan on Friday, he should publicly demand the immediate release of all protestors and Pakistan’s judiciary held in detention or house arrest since the crackdown began on November 3, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.
After Bhutto on November 13 called off power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf, activists from the PPP have faced police violence and mass arrests, particularly in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. On November 13, the government announced that it would not allow Bhutto to mount a protest march planned by her party for the same day. Bhutto and many PPP leaders have been under house arrest in the central city of Lahore since November 13. There are multiple reports of the police tear-gassing and beating protestors with batons.
“Musharraf is trying to cling on to power by beating and jailing an ever-growing number even of opposition activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But as Musharraf fills the jails with his critics, Pakistanis are expressing their disgust at his repressive rule through continued protests.”
November 14 saw arrests all over the country. In the city of Jhang, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and a PPP member, Abida Hussain, was arrested and placed under house arrest after she attempted to lead an anti-Musharraf rally. The Punjab province president of the PPP, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, along with several others, was arrested in Rajewala in Punjab province while attempting to lead a protest march from Lahore to the capital Islamabad.
Human Rights Watch has received reports that hundreds of PPP supporters along the route of the party’s proposed protest march have been detained without charge to prevent mobilization for and turnout at the march. Similarly, in the southern province of Sindh, the political base of the PPP, hundreds of party activists have been arrested in the cities of Karachi, Hyderababad, Jacobabad, Khairpur, Thatta and Larkana. Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm the detention of at least 600 PPP activists across Sindh who were protesting Bhutto’s house arrest. Unconfirmed but credible reports indicate the numbers are likely to be much higher.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the use of anti-terrorism laws to detain peaceful opponents of the Musharraf government. While most of the detained activists are being held without charge, many have been charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), while others are being held under provisions of the colonial-era Maintenance of Public Order Act (MPO).
PPP Senior Vice Chairman Yousaf Raza Gillani and 150 PPP activists were charged and produced in an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Lahore, then sent to jail on judicial remand. The 150 detainees include at least 40 women, some of them PPP members of the national and provincial legislatures.
Imran Khan, a former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team and leader of a small but vocal opposition party, Movement for Justice (PTI), was arrested on November 14 after he attempted to lead a student rally at Punnjab University in Lahore. Aftab Cheema, a senior Punjab police officer, confirmed to the Associated Press news agency that Khan was being held at an undisclosed location and had been charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
“Musharraf is trying to portray opponents of his power grab as terrorists,” said Adams. “His abuse of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws in a desperate bid to hold onto power must end.”
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for Musharraf to end the state of emergency, rescind the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) and return to constitutional rule. Musharraf must reinstate the judiciary headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, restore fundamental rights, remove restrictions on the media, and release thousands of political detainees held since November 3.
Human Rights Watch also urged Musharraf’s principal patron, the United States, to impose comprehensive sanctions on all military and economic aid, with the exception of humanitarian assistance. The US should also impose travel restrictions on members of the Musharraf government. US Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte should make it clear to Musharraf that continued US support depends on his reversing the measures he has instituted since November 3. Negroponte is due to arrive in Islamabad on November 16.
“US failure to back up its words of criticism with concrete sanctions has only fueled further political repression in Pakistan and deepened resentment of the US among Pakistanis,” said Adams. “Negroponte’s message to Musharraf needs to simple and straightforward: if he doesn’t end repression, respect human rights and restore the rule of law, Pakistan will lose billions of dollars in US support.”