12 March 2008

What goes around comes around? -- by ondelette

At first glance, there would seem to be no reason to turn our attention to a lawyer’s protest in a place 10 time-zones away on the other side of the world. After all, don’t we have enough on our plate in the U.S.? When it comes to rule of law, we have our current debate over amendments to FISA and NSA wiretapping. We have our debate over waterboarding and other newly fashionable U.S. approved tortures (or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’). We have our current debate over an amorphously defined War on Terror, and our own very real problems with al Qaeda, and terrorists, and war. Why worry about the Pakistani judiciary? Why worry about the restoration of democracy there?

In truth, it is probably always a smaller world than we imagine. Black Flag Week, which starts Monday, is set to commemorate the deposition of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry last year on March 9, 2007, the catalyst of a courageous lawyers' movement - and a political firestorm - that has engulfed Pakistan for months. Along with the subsequent State Emergency declared by President Musharaff on November 3, 2007, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007, and the free elections of February 18, 2008, it was a pivotal event, with implications, as things have turned out, worldwide. In Pakistan, many tens of thousands have protested in solidarity with the lawyers, and over the course of the turbulence and the elections, hundreds, like Ms. Bhutto, have lost their lives.

As Aitzaz Ahsan has noted, Iftikhar Chaudhry was at first an unlikely figure to serve as a rallying symbol for human rights and against the military government. The bench in Pakistan is generally conservative, and has gone along with the President Musharraf, the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But Justice Chaudhry decided to begin looking at human rights cases: he looked at the rights of women (80% of the women in prison are there for ‘illegal fornication’) and took on forced marriages and the rapes that were behind some of the detentions. He started looking at the plight of the Pakistani ‘disappeared prisoners’, hundreds of people, mostly men, many of whom were activists (some militant) who have been swept up on the premise of the War on Terror and held incommunicado and without charge. It would be as if the U.S. government had arrested hundreds of Americans and whisked them off to Guantanamo.

Justice Chaudhry ordered the government to produce the prisoners in court, and to either charge them or release them. Meanwhile the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Amnesty International, and other human and civil rights watchdog groups documented the various cases of prisoners who had been released and subsequently intimidated into not speaking of their detainment, neither to the advocacy groups, nor to the press. Nevertheless, some did speak, and as time went on a picture emerged of detentions that included harsh interrogations, deprivation of food and medicine, and, ominously, many released prisoners said they had been interrogated in the presence of American CIA. Other human rights groups have documented that some prisoners were sent to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan into United States' custody.

All of these actions gave Musharraf and those around him the feeling that Justice Chaudhry could not be trusted to allow Musharraf to change the rules and run for another term. Furthermore, he was questioning some privatization deals that were rushed through. So Musharaff sacked Justice Chaudhry. The lawyers protested throughout the summer, and Justice Chaudhry refused to go gently into that good night. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, they unanimously voted to reinstate him. The court ruled against Musharraf numerous times, and ordered him to produce documentation about the disappeared prisoners in court by November 13th . On November 3rd President Musharraf suspended the Constitution and arrested thousands, including the lawyers, and judges, and the human rights commissioners. He constituted for himself a new court - and a new verdict - and got himself elected to a new term. HRCP Chairperson Asma Jahangir wondered rhetorically, when called during her house arrest, if President Musharraf was so concerned with terrorists that he suspended the Constitution, why were the people being arrested secular lawyers and human rights activists, while the President made deals with militants, many of them sworn to al Qaeda?

In the end, it really is a small world. Preventing the release of the disappeared prisoners protects our government from charges of mistreatment and torture in the same way that the FISA retroactive immunity does – it prevents cases from coming to court. The torture, the waterboarding? Many of its victims were arrested and disappeared in Pakistan. Detention without charge at Guantanamo? The same goes on in Pakistan, and some prisoners in Guantanamo were arrested there. And the justification? Why, the War on Terror, of course. It’s the Pakistanis country and their struggle for democracy.; but no small part of what they’re struggling with is related to what we question over here.

Aitzaz Ahsan, Newsweek: Pakistan’s Forgotten Man


Frontline Rough Cut. Pakistan: Disappeared


Carlotta Gall, New York Times: Picture of Secret Detentions Emerges in Pakistan


1 comment:

FAST Rising said...

Dear Karen M,

Thanks for writing to us. It is very encouraging to see Americans speaking out like they once used to.

And yes, we'll definitely use the logos/images you've posted!