Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Pakistan's struggle for democracy

When it comes to attacks on human rights in Pakistan, ruling politicians in Britain and the United States invariably look the other way. Even the suspension by President (and General) Pervez Musharraf of the country’s top judge, passes without comment in Washington and London. After all, Pakistan is an ally in the "war on terror" and is a useful place to torture alleged suspects before delivering them to US and British agencies. Why, they can even keep their nuclear weapons for being so co-operative. But the double-standards approach is cutting no ice in Pakistan, where a massive movement is defying Musharraf’s military regime and demanding the reinstatement of the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry and the resignation of the president. Musharraf is now threatening a full-blown state of emergency, which would effectively be a military dictatorship, if protests continue. In the most unlikely scenes, Chaudhry has made a triumphant tour of the country in open defiance of Musharraf’s regime. Chaudhry departed from the Supreme Court in the capital Islamabad on Saturday for what is normally a four-hour road trip to Lahore. He took 25 hours because of the massive wave of support along the way. When he reached Lahore, he said that the "concept of an autocratic system of government is over ... Rule of law, supremacy of the constitution, basic human rights and individual freedom granted by the constitution are essential for the formation of a civilised society". Despite temperatures of more than 41C, Sunday's rally was attended by lawyers, political party workers, trade unionists, student organisations, the general public, and even religious students from madrassas. Seventeen sitting judges of the Lahore High Court were also in attendance. Then this week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court stepped in to lend support to Chaudhry. It temporarily barred the smaller judicial council from hearing allegations of misconduct and abuse of office against Chaudhry, laid against him by Musharraf when he suspended the judge in March. It directed that the case should be heard by the full court.

Chaudhry’s suspension came against a background of plans by Musharraf’s military regime to hang on to power whatever the outcome of October’s scheduled elections. Musharraf wants to get the present parliament to elect him president once more before the elections and to stay on as head of the army. He knew that Chaudhry would have ruled against him, so Musharraf had the judge suspended. At the same time, he issued two orders - one restraining the chief justice from performing his functions and the other ordering the appointment of an acting chief justice. In doing do, he turned a legal issue into a growing revolt against Pakistan’s corrupt ruling elites who are gathered around the army and Musharraf’s regime, which has been in power for almost eight years. A new phase in the country’s politics is clearly under way. As one observer noted, those marching in the streets to honour a chief justice they barely knew much until a few days ago are calling for the rule of law. For most of its history, Pakistan has been subject to the law of rulers, suffering a series of military coups since 1958. The popular movement sparked by Chaudhry’s removal could yet sweep Musharraf’s regime away. That would lead to joy in Pakistan. As for London and Washington, no doubt they are already plotting away to try and make sure that their man stays in power, whatever the cost in terms of human rights.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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