Pakistan’s Politicians Vote to Recognize ‘Divine Right’ of Army Chiefs

On Tuesday, January 7, 2020, the National Assembly of Pakistan approved a bill granting legal cover to a three-year extension in service to current Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ending what some have referred to as “stand-off between the nation’s strong military and the judiciary.” The bill will become a law once it is approved by the Senate, the upper house. What was predictable was how the two main opposition parties, both Pakistan People’s Party, co-headed by former president Asif Ali Zardari, and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of ex-premier Nawaz Sharif, supported this move by Imran Khan’s led government.

Two days earlier, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had expressed deep concern “at Parliament’s attempt to hastily introduce legislation that will affect the organisation of the military through the recently tabled Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act 2020, the Pakistan Navy (Amendment) Act and the Pakistan Airforce (Amendment) Act. In the interest of preserving the sanctity of democratic rule, decisions concerning the rules and regulations that govern the tenure and appointment of military chiefs must not be made rashly. The undue haste in which this has occurred has worrying implications for the way in which democratic decisions are made in the future. Building institutions that outlast individuals is paramount to strengthening Pakistan’s ability to protect citizens’ fundamental rights. The recently tabled laws are a matter of public interest and the people’s elected representatives have a duty to legislate with responsibility and not on an ad hoc basis. This is critical to the spirit of the Constitution.”

However, even the Senate Standing committee on Defense approved the legislations and the bills will be approved by the Senate tomorrow.

The only parliamentarians who opposed the bills were those from Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-i-Islami and representatives from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). In a tweet, a North Waziristan MNA Mohsin Dawar said prior to walking out of the National Assembly, they had voted against the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2020. “This parliament acted like a rubber stamp. Speaker didn’t even allow the few dissenting voices to make their case. This is one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. It will take a long time to recover from this.”

Nankana Incident Shows Limits of Pakistan’s Khalistan Agenda

Pakistan has often been described as one of the worst offenders of religious freedom and minority rights. While Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisers may claim things have improved this Friday January 3’s events in Nankana Sahib, one of the holiest shrines of the Sikh community, show how far Pakistan has still left to go. Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, also known as the Gurdwara Janam Asthan, is the site where the first Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak, was born and is regarded as one of the holiest sites in the religion.  

In August 2019, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed in the Nankana police station against six people who were accused of abducting and forcibly converting a Sikh woman, Jagjit Kaur. On Friday scores of protesters staged a sit-in outside the Nankhana Sahib Gurdwara, led by the family of the man accused of the abduction and conversion, Ehsan.

Many Pakistani activists streamed videos of the sit in and the tense situation at the gurdwara.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also issued a statement on twitter condemning the incident and asking the government to protect the Gurdwara.

In the end the protesters dispersed only after obtaining the release of the arrested person.

General Bajwa’s Extension Drama Continues

In the midst of economic crises and international turmoil, Army Chief General Bajwa’s extension continues to occupy primetime on Pakistani media and in a predictable development the government and the opposition will work together to ensure that the COAS gets his extension.

In August 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan had extended Gen Bajwa’s tenure for three years through a notification, but on November 26, 2019 – three days before Gen Bajwa was due to retire – the Supreme Court under then Chief Justice Khosa suspended the order. Two days later the apex court announced that Bajwa would remain the COAS for another six months during which the parliament would legislate on the army chief’s extension/reappointment.

In the wake of this order, the PTI government decided to introduce an amendment bill in parliament after building a consensus with major opposition parties – PMLN and PPP – on the matter.

As Dawn reports “The government needs the support of opposition parties to make

the amendments as any amendment to the Constitution needs to be approved by at least two-thirds of the membership of each House — the National Assembly and Senate. “We are hopeful that the bill seeking amendments in the army act, which requires a simple majority, will be passed from both houses unanimously on Friday,” said PTI MNA Malik Amir Dogar. He said that under a provision, the maximum age limit of the army, navy and air force chiefs and joint chief of staff committee will be 64 years in case they are given an extension in their tenures.”

The new laws“will fix 64 years as the maximum age limit of the three services chiefs — chief of army staff, chief of air staff and chief of naval staff — and the chairman of the joint chief of staff committee, with the prime minister having the prerogative to give an extension to any of them in future after completion of their normal tenure at the age of 60 years and the president having the power to give the final nod.”

Interestingly, “speaking to reporters after the NA session, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said his party will support the legislation if it is done through the parliamentary rules and regulations. He said the bills will first be sent to the National Assembly Standing Committee on Defence and the matter will be discussed in the House, adding that PML-N had not taken the opposition into confidence before offering the government their unconditional support on the legislation. “I think this should have not happened in this way. It is the responsibility of the leader of the opposition to unite the opposition and maintain consensus among ranks.”

However, “However, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief Sirajul Haq tweeted on Friday evening

that his party “will not support” the Army Act amendment bill. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while talking to media in Islamabad, also said his party will “thoroughly resist” the amendment bill because it cannot give the right to legislate to a National Assembly “that was formed after stealing the people’s mandate”.”

‘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.”

‘Another Blasphemy Conviction That Shows Inherent Injustice of Pakistan’s Law’

After six years of being in prison under blasphemy charges, 33-year old Junaid Hafeez, professor at Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan, was awarded the death sentence.

Hafeez “obtained a Master’s degree in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship, specialising in American literature, photography and theatre. After returning to Pakistan he took up a lecturer position at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan, where he worked until his arrest. He was accused of having insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and its holy book, the Quran, verbally and on Facebook in 2013. Hafeez has been held in solitary confinement due to security concerns since 2014 when his lawyer, prominent rights activist Rashid Rehman, was murdered. The attack came after Rehman had been threatened in open court by religious leaders and lawyers associated with the prosecution.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed dismay at the verdict. “HRCP believes that the blasphemy laws are heavily misused. This is compounded by a trial process ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary. The offence itself is already associated with vigilantism and entrenched impunity – underscored by the 2014 murder of Mr Hafeez’s lawyer, Rashid Rehman. The resulting pressure on lower courts becomes apparent when most such verdicts are overturned by the High Court or Supreme Court. In five years, at least eight judges have heard Mr Hafeez’s case, making a fair trial virtually impossible. Meanwhile, he has undergone six years’ imprisonment in solitary confinement. Aasia Bibi, who was charged similarly, was acquitted after eight years’ incarceration. There are grave implications here for access to justice in such cases. HRCP reposes its faith in the higher judiciary and hopes that the verdict will be overturned in appeal.”