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(New York) - The continued detention of independent judges, the recent re-arrests of lawyers on spurious grounds, and the large-scale induction of President Pervez Musharraf’s appointees into Pakistan’s judiciary will have a serious impact on the credibility of the national elections scheduled for February 18, Human Rights Watch said today.

Under Pakistani law, the Supreme Court is the final arbiter over any claims of election irregularities and controversies. Judicial review of the decisions of the Election Commission can be sought in the High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf responds to a question posed by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Roth asked Musharraf whether, in the interest of free debate before the February 18, 2008 parliamentary elections, he would release the judges and lawyers who were being held under house arrest but had not been charged with any crime.. © 2008 Private “Days before Pakistan goes to the polls, its lawful chief justice and his children remain under illegal house arrest, as do many lawyers who would likely challenge election-rigging in the courts,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Musharraf’s systematic destruction of legal institutions has seriously compromised the upcoming elections.”

Since November 3, deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, his family and five other Supreme Court justices who also refused to accept Musharraf’s suspension of the constitution and declaration of a state of emergency have remained under illegal house arrest. Judges at other levels of the judiciary were also deposed and repeatedly face arbitrary detention. Meanwhile, Musharraf has replaced dozens of arbitrarily fired judges with his own nominees.

Leaders of the lawyers’ movement, including Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan, retired Justice Tariq Mehmood, and former Bar Council Vice Chairman Ali Ahmed Kurd, were detained under the colonial-era Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance (MPO). They remain under house arrest. The Pakistani constitution prohibits detention under the MPO for more than 90 days. The government released them on January 31 on expiry of that period, but arbitrarily re-arrested them 48 hours later under a fresh MPO order.

“The re-arrest of these lawyers is a disgrace and makes it clear that Musharraf is determined to ensure that many of his fiercest critics are locked up before the election,” said Adams. “Musharraf must release the lawyers and judges immediately.”

In 2007, the movement of lawyers and the growing independence of the nation’s judiciary had made genuine progress in putting Pakistan back on the path to the rule of law and raised hopes for a free election, Human Rights Watch said. That ended when Musharraf announced his state of emergency on November 3.

Under the revised constitution, unilaterally imposed by Musharraf, the government now has powers to disbar lawyers involved in peaceful anti-government activities, and the military can now try civilians for a wide range of offenses previously under the purview of the country’s judiciary, including charges as vague as causing “public mischief.”

Human Rights Watch noted that such a repressive political environment thwarts any possibility that elections, scheduled for February 18, could be free or fair.

“The government has warned it will not tolerate the ‘politics of agitation,’” said Adams. “Such restrictions are contrary to human rights law at the best of times, and absolutely unacceptable in the middle of an election.”

Rigging in successive elections by the Pakistani military has been well-documented. The emergence of an independent judiciary in Pakistan last year provided the best hope in decades for a fair election. But the dismantling of that judiciary shows Musharraf’s bad faith in the months before these elections.

“A real election campaign is impossible when a country’s military government deposes the legitimate judiciary, replaces lawful judges with its hand-picked supporters, and keeps its chief critics under arrest,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch criticized the United States and the United Kingdom, which consider Musharraf an indispensable ally in the “war on terror,” for failing to press for the restoration of the independent judiciary headed by Chief Justice Chaudhry. Both countries should urge the immediate release of all persons arbitrarily detained and a return to genuine constitutional rule in Pakistan.

“In other parts of the world, the US and UK wax eloquently about the need for an independent judiciary and pressure governments to respect this principle,” said Adams. “Yet President Bush and Prime Minister Brown seem to have a double standard where Musharraf is concerned.”

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