Popular protests make nonsense of Musharraf’s resort to martial law

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Qa'dah 20, 1428 2007-12-01

Main Stories

by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 10, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1428)

Three weeks after General Pervez Musharraf hit Pakistan's crumbling political system on November 3 by declaring a “state of emergency”, the Supreme Court, stacked with loyalist judges, handed him the verdict he wanted. His questionable “election” as president on October 6 was declared valid on November 22: the judges simply dismissed the last of six petitions challenging its legality. Two days before, Musharraf had issued a presidential decree amending the suspended constitution and granted himself indemnity from prosecution. He also decreed that no court has the authority to challenge his proclamation of the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), the state of emergency or actions taken since its imposition. Clearly, he did this aware that he was skating on thin legal ice.

Under the new dispensation—essentially martial law—thousands of political activists, lawyers and journalists were arrested and imprisoned. Supreme Court judges who refused to take oath under the PCO were also arrested by soldiers, dragged from their chambers in the Supreme Court building and placed under house arrest. There were disturbing scenes of club-wielding policemen beating up lawyers inside court premises and punching and kicking them as they were dragged to waiting trucks to be taken to jail. Journalists were similarly treated, and continue to face the police's usual brutality.

Musharraf signed the order declaring a “state of emergency” not as president but as chief of army staff. This demonstrates the reality facing Pakistan today: the country is under the boot of the military, which has no regard for any rule of law. The Chief of Army Staff has no authority to declare emergency; only the president can do so on the advice of the prime minister, provided there is a credible threat to the country's internal or external security. There was no such threat except Musharraf's fear that the Supreme Court, hearing petitions challenging his unconstitutional presidential election of October 6, would deliver an unfavourable verdict. So he struck first, sending the judges home to house arrest.

On the night on November 3 and 4, he appeared on state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV), the only station allowed to broadcast, to explain the reasons for the emergency. He sounded like a drunken sailor trying to defend the indefensible. He alleged that the country faced a threat from “extremists”; if true, he has a lot of explaining to do. For eight years he has been the sole authority in the land and done as he pleased. His troops are attacking and killing civilians in North and South Waziristan, in Swat and Bajaur in the North West Frontier Province, and in Baluchistan. Cobra helicopters and F-16 planes are being used against Pakistani villagers, thousands of whom have been killed in the last three years.

Musharraf also lamented the fact that judges were releasing “terrorists” apprehended by his security forces, and that this was demoralizing them because it prevented them from “doing their job”. Is it their job to arrest opponents of the regime, throw them in jail and throw the key away without pressing charges against them? Several people picked up by the intelligence agencies have been murdered. The judges merely ruled that the government either press charges against detainees or set them free; it has no right to detain them indefinitely. Interestingly, the two judges—Faqir Muhammad Khokhar and Muhammad Nawaz Abbasi—who had ordered the detainees' release are still serving as judges because they took oath under the PCO. So Musharraf was not complaining about judges doing their job; his real concern was that the other judges refused to confer legitimacy on his illegal acts.

Musharraf's rambling speech on November 3 lacked sophistication and coherence; he wandered between Urdu and English repeatedly. Gone was the self-confidence of the commando soldier, an image he had carefully cultivated and projected in the past; his body language clearly betraying nervousness. When he spoke in English, he compared himself with the nineteenth-century American president Abraham Lincoln, saying that he had to violate certain laws to “save the nation”. He has wrapped himself in the garb of the “nation's saviour” so often that few take him seriously. What “nation” is he talking about anyway? As for comparing himself with Lincoln, Musharraf is no Abe Lincoln and he knows it.

There has only been mild criticism of his actions in Washington and London, the two power-centres that matter most in Pakistani politics, against Musharraf's actions. On November 16, US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte arrived in Islamabad to urge Musharraf to work with Benazir Bhutto, the US's darling in dupatta. America is working to create a Musharraf-Benazir axis and thus provide a civilian gloss on a military dispensation. The Pakistani people are aware of this and want none of it. They view both as American puppets, but feel that no alternative is available to them. The disarray in the ranks of the political parties is shown by their lack of coherent strategy to mobilize the masses to confront the general even after three weeks. This is Musharraf's second coup in eight years, this one carried out against the judiciary. There is deep weariness among the people, who see the politicians as equally bad and have little reason to come out in the streets to replace one set of crooks in uniform with another set in civilian clothes, both totally subservient to the US.

There is, however, something unusual about the situation in Pakistan this time round. Before being placed under house arrest, eight Supreme Court judges, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, declared Musharraf's state of emergency illegal. Aware that something was afoot, the justices were present in the Supreme Court building on Saturday November 3 and issued their ruling immediately after the “emergency” was declared. This is likely to haunt Musharraf when the political tide turns against him. Displaying unusual courage and adherence to the rule of law, the overwhelming majority of Supreme and provincial courts’ judges refused to take oath under the PCO. Musharraf and his cohorts had to scramble and bring retired judges out of mothballs to fill the courts' benches.

Even so, it took nearly two weeks to get enough judges on the Supreme Court bench to fulfil legal requirements. Interestingly, not a single chief justice of any of the five superior courts—Supreme Court and the four provincial high courts—agreed to take oath under the PCO. They risked arrest but refused to confer legitimacy on an illegitimate system, as has been the wont of judges in the past. It is reported that the three Supreme Court judges—Abdul Hamid Dogar, Faqir Muhammad Khokhar and Muhammad Nawaz Abbasi—who took oath under the PCO with Dogar as chief justice were blackmailed because they or relatives of theirs had been caught on camera in compromising situations. Dogar was with the government all along and was acting as an informant against his fellow judges. For this act of betrayal he was rewarded with the plum job of chief justice.

Though the legal battle, on hold for now, is likely to drag on for years, the political circus is in full swing. Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party and maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jami'at-e Ulama-e Islam are both in league with Musharraf, hoping to cash in on their loyalty to him by reaping rewards after the farcical elections that Musharraf has promised for January 8. The assemblies were dissolved on November 18 and a caretaker government led by the senate chairman, Muhammadmian Soomro, was sworn in, again an illegal act. The senate chairman cannot become the prime minister because he must act as president in the absence of the current president. For instance, on November 20, when Musharraf flew to Riyadh to urge the Saudi authorities to prevent formerprime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has emerged as his fiercest critic, from returning to Pakistan before the elections, Soomro was acting president. There were also reports that Musharraf had attempted to meet Sharif, but the latter refused.

Also on November 20, the government announced that it had released thousands of political prisoners and lawyers, including Imran Khan, the cricket-star-turned-politician who was arrested on November 13 at the Punjab University campus in Lahore. He was handed over to the police by members of the Jami'at-e Tulaba, the student wing of the Jama'at-e Islami, in what has turned out to be one of the most shameful episodes in Pakistan's tortuous history. Imran Khan was moved to Dera Ghazi Khan jail, where he went on a hunger strike on November 17. Lawyers have accused the government of playing a cynical game; it releases people but promptly re-arrests them or drags others to jail in their place. On November 22 the government announced that the deposed judges were no longer under house arrest. When retired justice Wajihuddin Ahmed and lawyer Athar Minallah, a former minister in Musharraf's cabinet, tried to visit Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry at his residence, they were prevented from doing so by a heavy contingent of the police. As they drove off, Minallah was arrested for “violating the law”.

While this cat-and-mouse game continues with some lawyers, others, such as Munir A. Malik, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and Aitezaz Ahsan, its current president, both staunch supporters of the displaced chief justice, have been held in horrible conditions in jail. Munir Malik, held in the notorious Attock Jail, was so badly tortured that he had to be rushed to a hospital in Islamabad on November 23. Nobody had been allowed to see him, his wife said on November 20. She said that the jail authorities even refused to allow medicines to be delivered to him. Aitezaz Ahsan is being held in Adiala Jail. He refused to be transferred to a hospital because he said other lawyers and political workers were being badly treated in jail and he did not want to abandon them.

The future course of events will depend on how many political parties boycott the elections on January 8. If enough of them join the boycott, it will completely deprive the process of any illusion of legitimacy and will provide impetus to a mass movement. With Musharraf out of uniform—his “second skin”, as he put it—his first skin, albeit quite thick, which he has been trying to save, will become vulnerable. The new army boss, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, a staunchly pro-American officer, will become his own man. Pakistan has a long history of loyalists turning against their benefactors. Musharraf did it to Nawaz Sharif, as did General Zia ul-Haque to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In fact, Musharraf has stabbed a lot of people in the back besides Nawaz Sharif. He swiftly dismissed the three generals—Mahmoud Ahmed, Muhammad Aziz and Muzaffar Usmani—who had brought him to power when his plane was prevented from landing in Pakistan on the orders of the then prime minister in October 1999.

If the political turmoil continues and the police are unable to contain street violence, the army may be called out to shoot people. If this goes on for any length of time, this will result in soldiers disobeying their officers; it has happened before. The upper echelon of the military will not want such a situation to develop or continue for long, and will force Musharraf to quit. Whether this will endPakistan's immediate problems is uncertain. What the political farce in Pakistan shows is that the system is incapable of providing any solutions to its myriad problems. The choice facing the people is stark: oppressive, corrupt military rulers or an equally corrupt bunch of ruthless feudal lords who maintain private armies and run private prisons. The people's contempt for both is high.

Pakistan is in a tailspin; the only way to get out of this disastrous situation is to dismantle the present colonial-imposed order by means of an Islamic revolution brought about by means of an Islamic movement. It would appear that an increasing number of people in Pakistan are beginning to realize this. What they need is a leadership with a clear vision to mobilize the masses and consign this decaying system to the history books. Failing that, the people of Pakistan will continue to stagger from one crisis to the next, and each change of rulers will only make the situation even worse. This is hardly a prospect to look forward to and may even lead to the disintegration of Pakistan; all the signs are already there. The march of history does not wait for anyone; Islamic activists ought to give this serious consideration. Nature abhors a vacuum; other forces are bound to step in and fill it if there is no credible solution offered to the problems of the people and their country.

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