‘Remembering Benazir Bhutto’s Legacy on the Day she was Assassinated’

12 years ago on December 27, 2019, Ms Benazir Bhutto, twice elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, the first woman head of government in any Muslim-majority state was assassinated in the midst of campaigning and in the capital of the country.

As the former head of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a veteran activist, I.A. Rahman wrote, Benazir Bhutto “inspired the hope that she could put democracy back on the rails. Inability to fulfil this expectation dented her image somewhat. Allowed to complete neither of her two terms and hounded from one court to another for a long time, she was compelled to spend a decade in self-exile. Yet the establishment never stopped fearing her as a potential game-changer; a threat that could only be averted with physical liquidation.”

According to former Member of National Assembly, Farahnaz Ispahani “almost as painful as Benazir Bhutto being taken away from her family, friends, political supporters, and supporters of her ideology, is the vast gap that is visible in Pakistan without her leadership. Lost to us at merely 54 years of age, her wisdom, sagacity and experience had just come into its prime. Today, Pakistan’s economy is failing not merely faltering and Pakistan is ruled by its own version of the global trend of clueless populist celebrity leaders. A three-time elected Prime Minister was first unseated and then banned from office and jailed, amid a spurt of disputed judicial verdicts. There is no visionary leadership anywhere on the horizon, reminding us constantly of Benazir Bhutto’s words and vision, which are not as well known to a new generation that has grown up without knowing her.”

As Rahman notes “Benazir Bhutto’s positive work as prime minister included giving the government a humanitarian face. The commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment was followed by banning of lashing (except for Hadd cases) and public hanging. The plan to offer the disadvantaged relief through special tribunals did not work, so a separate ministry of human rights was created. Her effort to amend the procedure in blasphemy cases was scotched by the conservatives, but her instructions not to arrest any accused without a proper inquiry did lead to a fall in such cases. Women activists complained that she didn’t do anything substantial for them, but they could not deny the favourable ambiance Benazir had created. And her uncompromising resistance to pseudo-religious militants was not matched by anyone, with the possible exception of Afzal Lala of Swat. The hurdles that held Benazir back included the absence of a culture of democracy; the habit of political parties to treat one another as their worst enemies and a tendency among them to destroy political rivals with military’s help; the personality cult in the PPP and its centralised decision-making without democratic centralism; and the politicians’ failure to remember that what was not permitted to authoritarian rulers was prohibited for them too.The PPP also suffered as a result of its shift away from a left-of-centre platform as it blunted the edge it had over the centrist outfits.”

Finally, Rahman asserts “An assessment of Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership usually takes two forms: one, that she was incapable of establishing a democratic order, and, two, that the establishment did not let her work. A realistic view will begin by noting the absence of a stable, efficient and fair-minded state apparatus that could relieve her of routine chores and allow her to concentrate on broad political and socio-economic issues. Also, no politician could (or can even today) roll back the Zia legacy through a frontal attack, except for a popular revolution. Besides, the deeply entrenched, highly trained and generally better informed establishment needed to be outmanoeuvred in a subtle and adroit manner. Benazir Bhutto was outmanoeuvred by the dominant power centre and she might also have sometimes unwittingly helped it. The real losers as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s elimination from politics were the people. Their concerns remained off the government’s agenda and the dream of a democratic and egalitarian Pakistan receded even further.”

‘Pakistan Army Defends its Former Chief after Conviction for Treason’

The announcement of the special anti-terrorism court verdict sentencing former military dictator Pervez Musharraf to death in absentia on treason charges has led to both direct and indirect attacks on the judiciary from both the military as well as its supporters.

Both supporters of the military as well as of the government have sought to criticize Musharraf’s conviction. The best rebuttal to this was given by Reema Omer, Legal Advisor South Asia, International Commission of Jurists, in a series of tweets (listed below)

“1. Musharraf was tried for imposition of emergency, which isn’t treason

“False. Musharraf was charged on many counts, incl. subverting the constitution/holding it in abeyance, which squarely fall under Art 6. Also, SC has said this “emergency” was martial law with another name.

“2. Musharraf was tried for suspending the constitution, which wasnt an offence in 2007. This amounts to retrospective punishment

“False. SC has held holding constitution in abeyance is subverting the constitution, and subversion has been a part of Art 6 (high treason) since 1973

“3. Musharraf couldn’t have been tried without including aiders/abettors to the crime

False. SC has categorically said that there is no need to postpone the trial until aiders/abettors are included. If Govt wants, it should launch a fresh investigation against others responsible

“Finally, Musharraf was denied a fair trial as he was tried in his absence

Even under int. standards, trial in absentia is permissible provided certain safeguards are ensured such as giving accused opportunity to participate, which were largely ensured.”

The other tactic appears to openly attack the individual judges. The PTI-run government’s recently appointed Law Minister Farogh Naseem “announced the federal government’s decision to approach the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) for the restraining — and subsequent removal — of the judge who had authored the detailed verdict in the Musharraf treason case. The judgment has been authored by Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth who has directed that the “corpse” of former president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf be “dragged to D-Chowk” and “hanged for 3 days” in paragraph 66. “I do not understand the authority under which this sort of observation was given,” said Naseem, as he addressed a press conference in Islamabad on Thursday evening. “Keeping in view Justice Waqar Ahmed Seth’s observations, the federal government has decided to approach the Supreme Judicial Council and file a request stating that such a judge has no authority to be a judge of a high court or the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He is unfit. “When such observations are given, not only is the court’s privilege hurt, it becomes a test for the administration of justice. “Our request is, because he has proven himself to be mentally unfit and incompetent, he must immediately be prevented from working. We request the Supreme Court judges to restrain him from any administrative or judicial work,” said the law minister.”

Such an open attack on an institution of state led the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to release its statement expressing concern “at the mounting tension between two key institutions of the state, and deprecates the sustained assault on the judiciary. The court’s verdict, which finds General Pervez Musharraf guilty of treason, sets an important precedent. The objections to paragraph 66, and the storm it has created, should not depreciate the main body of the judgment. While reiterating its opposition to the death penalty in all cases, the Commission also urges all state institutions to remember that they have pledged their loyalty to the Constitution. This is the bedrock of Pakistan’s democracy and of the state’s duty to protect the fundamental rights of its people.”

When Bigots wont let an official mention Ahmadis as Pakistanis whose rights should be respected!

On December 12, the Assistant Commissioner of Attock, Jannat Hussain Nekokara, was forced to apologize for comments in support of equal rights for minorities. As per news reports, “While speaking at an International Human Rights Day event in Attock, Nekokara had called for granting equal rights to all minorities regardless of religious divisions. “We should give due rights to non-Muslims Pakistanis, we should give them their due regard, we have unfortunately gotten stuck in these religious divisions, someone identifies as Shia, someone as Sunni, someone as an Ahmadi, someone as a Wahabi, we should dissolve these differences and instead identify ourselves only as Muslims and Pakistanis,” she said.”

However, “soon afterward, over a dozen protesters, most of them students, arrived at the district administration building demanding an explanation from the Attock AC over grouping Ahmadis with other Muslims in her speech. In her defence, AC Nekokara said that she did not in any way imply that Ahmadis were Muslims and said she accepted the constitution which declared them non-Muslims. “I talked about minority rights, I spoke about rights of non-Muslim Pakistanis, may be I should have not even mentioned the word Ahmadi in that, then I spoke about how we should stay united and not discriminate against anyone so that we can protect against external enemies,” she said. “They (Ahmadis) are non-Muslim according to the constitution and non-Muslim in my view as well,” she added.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) immediately tweeted and expressed its concern but it is reprehensible that the state of Pakistan did not stand up for its own official.

‘Afghanistan Papers Suggest US Made Mistake in Trusting Musharraf & Pakistan’

On December 9th, the Washington Post published ‘The Afghanistan Papers’ a “confidential trove of government documents” that were “generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.”

While the focus is Afghanistan, the interviews and documents also discuss how the US should never have treated Pakistan as a friend. “In Lessons Learned interviews, other officials said the Bush administration compounded its early mistake with the Taliban by making another critical error — treating Pakistan as a friend. Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had given the Pentagon permission to use Pakistani airspace and let the CIA track al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistani territory. As a result, the Bush White House was slow to recognize that Pakistan was simultaneously giving covert support to the Taliban, according to the interviews.”

As The Afghanistan Papers point out: “Because of people’s personal confidence in Musharraf and because of things he was continuing to do in helping police up a bunch of the al-Qaeda in Pakistan. There was a failure to perceive the double game that he starts to play by late 2002, early 2003,” Marin Strmecki, a senior adviser to Rumsfeld, told government interviewers. “I think that the Afghans, and [President Hamid] Karzai himself, are bringing this up constantly even in the earlier parts of 2002,” Strmecki added. “They are meeting unsympathetic ears because of the belief that Pakistan was helping us so much on al-Qaeda. . . . There is never a full confronting of Pakistan in its role supporting the Taliban.”

Further, “In the Lessons Learned interviews, Obama officials acknowledged that they failed to resolve another strategic challenge that had dogged Bush — what to do about Pakistan. Washington kept giving Pakistan billions of dollars a year to help fight terrorism. Yet Pakistani military and intelligence leaders never stopped supporting the Afghan Taliban and giving sanctuary to its leaders. “The Obama administration just thought if you just hang in there Pakistan will see the light,” a former White House official told government interviewers in 2015. In a separate interview in 2015, another unnamed official complained that the Obama administration would not let U.S. troops attack Taliban camps on the Pakistani side of the border. “And still today we wonder what the problem is,” the official said. “I talked to General Petraeus and I was saying that if I were a general and a bullet came and hit my men I would follow it. And Petraeus said yeah well go talk to Washington.” Crocker, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, told government interviewers that Pakistani leaders did not bother to hide their duplicity.”

Finally, “He recounted a conversation he had with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who was then Pakistan’s intelligence chief, in which he “was getting on him again” about the Taliban. “And he says, ‘You know, I know you think we’re hedging our bets. You’re right, we are, because one day you’ll be gone again, it’ll be like Afghanistan the first time, you’ll be done with us, but we’re still going to be here because we can’t actually move the country. And the last thing we want with all of our other problems is to have turned the Taliban into a mortal enemy, so, yes, we’re hedging our bets.’ ” In his December 2016 Lessons Learned interview, Crocker said the only way to force Pakistan to change would be for Trump to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely and give them the green light to hunt the Taliban on Pakistani territory. “It would allow him to say, ‘You worry about our reliability, you worry about our withdrawal from Afghanistan, I’m here to tell you that I’m going to keep troops there as long as I feel we need them, there is no calendar.’ “ ‘That’s the good news. The bad news for you is we’re going to kill Taliban leaders wherever we find them: Baluchistan, Punjab, downtown Islamabad. We’re going to go find them, so maybe you want to do a strategic recalculation.’ ”

Pakistan’s Students Rise up in Protest

Pakistan has a young population with over 65 % of its population under the age of 25 years. On Friday November 29th, many of them made their voices heard. The reaction of the government, however, has been to crack down on the movement and arrest activists. 

Thousands of students rallied in cities across the country, demanding the allocation of 5% of Pakistan’s GDP for education, an end to privatization of educational institutions, provision of basic facilities for students, and the constitution of sexual harassment committees in educational institutions.

In Islamabad the protest “included a theatrical performance by the group Lal Hartal, rousing speeches and sloganeering, and a march to D-Chowk. It was led by an alliance of leftist student organisations called the Student Action Committee (SAC), and included students from the Progressive Students Federation (PSF), the Progressive Students Collective, the Revolutionary Students Federation, the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), and the Pashtun Student Federation.”

According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan secretary-general Harris Khalique, “student organisations played a major role during the independence movement and the creation of Pakistan. “If you look at the movement in Pakistan, in East Pakistan and in West Pakistan between 1947 and 1971, it was student organisations which were heralding this struggle for democratic freedoms and democratic rights, students’ rights and rights to education and for fundamental freedoms,” he added. “There were a number of student organisations from the centre, left and right, and those organisations would negotiate with each other through an election process in the educational institutions.” Yet since 1984, the time of military dictator General Zia ul Haq, student unions have been banned in Pakistan,

As one of the speakers at the march, Minhajul Arfeen, asked: “The real cause of our frustration is that for 35 years, we have been told to keep quiet and study. “‘Politics isn’t your job’. If politics is so bad for us that we were kept from it for 35 years, why isn’t a single Pakistani university one of the top 200 in the world?”

Amnesty International issued an appeal on behalf of the students and activists “The Pakistani authorities must immediately end their crackdown on peaceful student protests, Amnesty International said today. The human rights organization’s call came after the Pakistani police have filed criminal charges against activists who have supported the ‘Student Solidarity March’ and the arbitrary detention of Alamgir Wazir, one of the protestors. The crackdown comes in the wake of peaceful student solidarity marches across Pakistan, demanding the right to form student unions and calling for an end to the harassment of students among other concerns. Alamgir Wazir was detained from the Punjab University campus in Lahore on 30 November 2019, and his whereabouts are still not known. He is the nephew of Ali Wazir, a parliamentarian and leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, a non-violent movement calling for an end to enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations against Pakistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority. The other four activists named in the police report – Ammar Ali Jan, Farooq Tariq, Muhammad Shabbir, Kamil Khan, and Iqbal Lala – are at risk of imminent arrest. Ammar Ali Jan, Farooq Tariq, Muhammad Shabbir and Kamil Khan are political activists. Iqbal Lala is the father of the late Mashal Khan, a student who was killed at his university after fellow students falsely accused him of committing blasphemy. The five activists have been charged with ‘sedition’, ‘maintenance of public order’, ‘nuisance’, and ‘continuation nuisance’ – draconian clauses in the penal code which trace their origins to British colonial rule. They have also been charged with the violation of the ‘Punjab Sound Systems (Regulation) Act’ – a non-bailable offence that can be punished by six months imprisonment and/or a fine.”