Pakistan’s Latest Political Trial

Pakistan’s security establishment has a history of using politically motivated trials to get rid of inconvenient civilian governments. Most famously, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s 1977 coup was finalised when a military court sentenced Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to death following what international officials dismissed as a mock trial fought in a Kangaroo court. Troublingly, there are reasons to worry that Pakistan may be witnessing another political trial against a democratically elected civilian government.

This latest chapter began with American businessman Mansoor Ijaz’s claim that Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, acting on the direction of the country’s president, sought American support for replacing Pakistan’s military leadership in order to prevent a possible coup. Mr. Ijaz, whose bizarre claims have been strongly questioned by the international media, has found himself an unlikely celebrity in Pakistan where his years of accusing Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies of facilitating international terrorism have been largely ignored in favour of his allegations against democratically elected civilian officials.

Despite serious questions about the accuser’s credibility, a media circus erupted over the issue. The first casualty of Ijaz’s allegations was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, who was driven to resign despite an absence of formal evidence suggesting his involvement. At the time of this writing, Pakistan is still operating without a permanent Ambassador to the world’s most powerful nation.

In response to the media uproar, Prime Minister Gilani announced a parliamentary commission to investigate the issue, only to have the rug pulled out from under him by the judiciary when the Chief Justice accepted a petition by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and announced that the Supreme Court would hold its own investigation, further ordering the country’s civilian and military officials to respond within 15 days.

Asad Jamal, a Lahore-based advocate of the high court, reviewed the Supreme Court’s justification for taking up the issue and found the decision completely outside the constitutional jurisdiction of the court.

The irony of Nawaz Sharif presenting the petition before the court was not lost on Pakistanis as Mr Sharif himself has been convicted by multiple courts on charges ranging from corruption to highjacking and terrorism. The cases were well known to be politically motivated, and many of the convictions were later overturned citing lack of evidence.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Nawaz Sharif’s latest legal gambit is that not only has the former Prime Minister himself been the subject of judicial persecution, but he has even been accused of the same charges that he is now petitioning the court to investigate.

According to Shaheen Sehbai, an editor at The News (Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper) reported in 1998 that Nawaz Sharif and his emissaries held secret meetings with U.S. government officials during which they asked the Americans for support in changing the military leadership who they suspected of plotting a coup. In return, Nawaz Sharif allegedly promised to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and task the ISI with supporting CIA operations to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The following year, the government fell in a military coup and Nawaz Sharif found himself hauled before a court and quickly handed a life sentence. Sound familiar?

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has already placed Husain Haqqani on the nation’s Exit Control List (ECL), barring him from travel despite the fact that he vehemently denies the allegations leveled against him, returned to Pakistan of his own free will, and has yet to be formally charged with any wrongdoing. In contrast, the court has not taken any position on his accuser, Mansoor Ijaz, who has made nearly daily appearances in the Pakistani media repeating his allegations.

Though this latest episode in Pakistan’s political history is unfolding in deeply troubling ways, there are reasons to hold out hope. The judicial inquiry suffered its first setback when the man appointed by the court to head the commission, former Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency, Tariq Khosa, refused to take part.

And Husain Haqqani himself is not without significant supporters in Pakistan’s legal community. After reviewing the merits of the case, Asma Jahangir — one of Pakistan’s leading human rights advocates and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association — offered to defend Haqqani before the court. As compensation, she is asking only 4,000 Rupees — about $45.

Still, many in Pakistan and abroad are watching the proceedings anxiously. If Pakistan holds democratic elections as planned in 2013, it will be a historic moment for the country when the next government forms. Not once has Pakistan seen a transition between consecutive democratically elected governments. More often, we have seen the democratic process derailed by a misguided judiciary. Let’s hope history is not repeating itself.

Blind Faith: A Documentary On Blasphemy Laws

The following documentary called ‘Blind Faith’ is about the blasphemy law created by the penal code of 1860 and carried in four sections related to offenses against religion. These were originally enacted under British rule to diffuse communal tension in the multi-religion society of the subcontinent. Anyone voluntarily disturbing religious ceremonies was punishable.

In the 1980s, government of Zia-ul-Haq passed an ordinance to insert section 298a, 295b, 295c, 298 a b c which are today known as blasphemy laws. This documentary interviews several esteemed and learned sources about the history and current usage of blasphemy laws as well as several individuals who have been charged under the laws to learn more about their plight.

Part I

Part II

Schizophrenia On Women’s Rights

Schizophrenia on women's rights

Two diametrically opposed articles on the status of women’s rights in this country appear in today’s news. They should both be read together, hopefully resulting in an open and honest discussion of one of the great . For all the Ghairat Brigade’s moaning and wailing about issues of foreign policy, where are they when our national honor is truly being assaulted? I am talking, of course, about the way that we treat women’s rights.

Ayesha Ijaz Khan says that Asma Jahangir’s election is historic not only because she is a woman but because she is an independent woman who was elected on her own merit. There can be no accusations of sympathy votes or other influences, only a woman being elected based on her record of leadership.

Notwithstanding the strategic support of other influential and conscientious members of the bar, Asma’s own hard work, courage and independent-mindedness over the years and through the darkest periods of Pakistan’s history cannot be overlooked. Whether one looks domestically or to the Philippines, India or Bangladesh, women have won elections on the back of sympathy votes after male members of their family have been martyred. Asma has done it all on her own.

As such, Asma’s role as president SCBA may very well be greater than that of any other woman politician. Women have played an increasing yet limited role in Pakistan’s politics since Musharraf’s introduction of the reserved seats. Though not a bad way to boost female participation in politics, women who have availed of these seats are either beholden to familial politics or more obliged to toe the party lines for lack of their own constituencies. Asma’s independence, however, cannot be curtailed by either of these considerations, so the SCBA under her watch will surely be a potent force.

And indeed Ayesha is correct. Asma’s election does make this point, and it certainly is a good omen for the future of women in politics. But most women are not politicians, they are not lawyers, and they do not have the resources or the support to be independent and self-confident like Asma Jahangir and Ayesha Ijaz Khan.

So before we start praising ourselves too much for Asma’s fortune, let us keep in the front our minds that the fate of too many women in this country is described more accurately by Yasser Latif Hamdani’s column in Daily Times today.

To start with, in many parts of this country women are treated worse than cattle. Not only are women discriminated against by custom and tradition but also by the inheritance law and the law of evidence. Imagine our embarrassment as lawyers when we advise foreign clients to use male witnesses on contracts because thanks to General Zia our law does not think women are credible in financial matters.

For a society obsessed with shame and honour we also believe in honour killing. One of our judges, who rose to be the president of this country thanks to one of the major political parties, had ruled that women had no say in deciding who to marry. Relying on misinterpretation of the Holy Quran by lazy clerics, the men in Pakistan have a free hand in abusing their wives, both sexually and physically.

Women, who despite all these handicaps make it in professional and public lives, become fair game, often by other women. Consider the case of Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan abusing Kashmala Tariq shamelessly on TV, while the TV anchor egged her on.

One is reminded of the events after the rigged elections of 1965 when Gohar Ayub Khan carried out a procession allegedly with a female dog to signify none other than Ms Fatima Jinnah, who is widely considered a founding mother of Pakistan. While it said nothing about Fatima Jinnah, it indicates what the Pakistani male thinks and feels about women. A woman to the geniuses of Pakistan can be either mother or a loose woman and at the end of the day even the mother becomes a loose woman.

This mentality reached its zenith when a proud president in uniform declared that women in Pakistan get raped to get Canadian citizenship.

This is not news. I’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of the self-appointed Ghairat Brigade when they took to the streets to protest the treatment of Dr Aafia, but refuse to lend any help to the plight of our daughters here at home. We have known about this double-mindset on women’s rights for some time.

The election of Asma to president of SCBA is indeed historic, and her level-headed thinking will hopefully inject some reason into what have become unnecessarily contentious debates. But let us also use this occasion to recall that no all women in this country have the same rights and privileges as Asma Jahangir. But that will never change until we decide to make it change.

Yasser Latif Hamdani says that just as America’s NPR fired a reporter for making derogatory comments about Muslims, so our own media should show the same respect for our own daughters and refuse to continue paying a handsome salary to Syed Talat Hussain after his vicious anti-woman rant in Daily Express.

It will be informative to see if DawnNews, Talat Hussain’s new employer, will show more respect to this type of bigoted, anti-woman talk or if they will show more respect to women. Sadly, I think I can predict the outcome.

We must break this cycle of hypocrisy and schizophrenia on women’s rights. Sexist bigots will continue to spout their nonsense in the media, and vicious bullies will continue to beat their wives and daughters (and much worse) until we as a society take a stand and say THIS STOPS NOW.

Raza Rumi: A step towards a progressive Pakistan

Raza RumiAsma Jahangir’s victory in the Supreme Court Bar Association elections is a momentous event in the country’s political and legal landscape. Even the worst of her critics grudgingly admit that her principled stance has remained consistent in a country where intellectual honesty and integrity are in short supply. More importantly, her reasoned approach to recent bouts of judicial activism has been a source of strength for stakeholders in the democratic process. Almost every progressive Pakistani has been overjoyed with her election as head of a professional body which was on the verge of losing its credibility due to indulgence in partisan politics.

Since the lawyers’ movement created a stir in 2007, the bars had started to assume the role of a political party with an exaggerated notion of their power. Instead of focusing on what ailed legal education and the maligned profession, the regulators had turned into rowdy mobs, televangelists and spokespersons of the free and restored judges. Encouraged, a Supreme Court judge reportedly remarked how ‘popular will’ was above the Constitution. The pinnacle of this approach was the judgment in the NRO case. Asma Jahangir and a few other sensible lawyers highlighted the problematic aspects of the verdict. This was a game-changer and Jahangir was at the centre of this rational discourse.

Her detractors, which are many in a radicalised, post-jihad Pakistan, construed her independent view as affiliation with the government. This limited understanding of her persona and principles, ignoring nearly four decades of activism, was disingenuous at best. The tirade against her by a few zealots in the media even on the day of the election will go down in history as a shameful episode. Positioning her as an opponent of the judiciary was simply untenable as she has always been at the forefront of movements calling for an independent judiciary and democratic governance. Of course, the majority of senior lawyers have proved the media non-gurus wrong by discarding their biased rants.

Pakistan’s fragile democracy is compromised and corrupt; it can only evolve if adequate space is provided by the power players. Asma’s success comes at a time when a courageous voice, free of corporate interests, is required. Above all, her election is also significant for she is the first woman to hold this office, having defeated a wide coalition of right-wing lawyers who even used the Khatam-e Nabuwwat card to demolish her image and credentials.

Asma Jahangir has faced threats to her life and remains undaunted. She is the conscience of Pakistan and her international acclaim is based on her steadfastness, which our bigots wish to ignore. An Urdu columnist called her a danger to Islam and now the usual black-coated suspects are levelling charges that the government injected resources into her campaign. Obviously they have lost their control over the apex bar body and know that Asma will be a fearless and independent leader. They can worry for their agendas but liberal, democratic Pakistanis are rejoicing this much needed respite in the gloomy times that we live in.

This column by Raza Rumi was originally published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2010.

Mad ‘Sacred Cow’ Disease

Chief Justice Sacred CowAs I was thinking about the vilification of Marvi Memon for daring to suggest that maybe we should get the facts before we construct a shrine to Dr Aafia, it started to occur to me that part of the reason that it’s so easy to attack Marvi Memon is because she is a politician. We love to vilify them. But there is another group that is off limits for criticism – judges.

The Supreme Court has been highly political over the past few years, taking suo moto notice of all sorts of political cases as if there were no other issues in the country. The judiciary seems to have realized its political power and the fact that its become a sacred cow. Unfortunately, the result of this mixture is Mad Sacred Cow Disease.

Take the sugar price issue. Labour and Manpower Minister Syed Khursheed Shah dared to say what everyone in the world knows, which is that commodity prices are determined by the laws of economics – supply and demand. Certainly the courts should protect open and transparent markets so that there is no price fixing, but instead the LHC decided to do some price fixing of its own. When this was pointed out, the judges didn’t get reasonable – they got MAD.

“This court always welcomes healthy, constructive and fair comments on the merits of the decisions in good faith and in temperate language, without impugning the integrity or impartiality of the judge and expects that unwarranted and uncalled for comments would be avoided because judgments are based on law and the Constitution,” the Supreme Court office said in a rare statement.

But what if we believe that the judges are acting without “integrity or impartiality”? We have no problem accusing everyone in the Cabinet, the National Assembly, the Provincial Assemblies…everyone down to a rickshaw driver…of being corrupt. But the judges are somehow off limits?

The Supreme Court said that it “is following the Constitution and has played its due role assigned to it by the Constitution and law”, but I looked through the entire constitution and have not found where it says that the judges should set the price of sugar. If someone can point out that clause to me, I would be much obliged.

The same can be said about the 2009 decision on the carbon tax. Again, the constitution appears to be fairly clear in Article 77 – and the Supreme Court set the constitution aside to come to its own determination.

Criticising the courts shouldn’t be controversial, especially if the court is going to choose to insert itself into controversies.

Setting sugar aside for a moment, consider the bigger controversy which is the NRO. Human rights activists and legal experts have roundly criticised the court’s behaviour in this regard. Remember what Asma Jahangir wrote in December:

While, the NRO can never be defended even on the plea of keeping the system intact, the Supreme Court judgment has wider political implications. It may not, in the long run, uproot corruption from Pakistan but will make the apex court highly controversial.

Witch-hunts, rather than the impartial administration of justice, will keep the public amused. The norms of justice will be judged by the level of humiliation meted out to the wrongdoers, rather than strengthening institutions capable of protecting the rights of the people.

There is no doubt that impunity for corruption and violence under the cover of politics and religion has demoralised the people, fragmented society and taken several lives. It needs to be addressed but through consistency, without applying different standards, and by scrupulously respecting the dichotomy of powers within statecraft. In this respect the fine lines of the judgment do not bode well.

The lawyers’ movement and indeed the judiciary itself has often lamented that the theory of separation of powers between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive has not been respected. The NRO judgment has disturbed the equilibrium by creating an imbalance in favour of the judiciary.

The judgment has also sanctified the constitutional provisions of a dictator that placed a sword over the heads of the parliamentarians. Moreover, it has used the principle of ‘closed and past transactions’ selectively.

It is not easy to comprehend the logic of the Supreme Court that in a previous judgment it went beyond its jurisdiction to grant life to ordinances — including the NRO — protected by Musharraf’s emergency to give an opportunity to parliament to enact them into law.

The situation becomes even more troubling when we remember that only a few weeks before the Chief Justice warned that no one should question the courts, he also stated that the courts will intervene in any state organ. This statement prompted Asad Jamal to ask an important question, then: “Who will hold the courts accountable?”

Granted, that the courts are there to protect the rights of the people when the executive transgresses its jurisdiction. Granted too, that it is the courts’ job to interpret laws and intervene in case they violate fundamental rights. But who will hold the courts accountable? Should they indulge in judicial excesses? Nobody is ready to raise this question in these times of judicial activism. Meanwhile, the courts may do well to follow the unwritten code of self-restraint.

We are a nation of laws, are we not? You can read any newspaper or watch any TV talk show on any given day and there will be some discussion of accountability for the police, accountability for ISI, accountability for politicians – why can we not have accountability for judges also?

We have already seen the disastrous results of a nation of generals. Let’s not make the the same mistake and try to fashion ourselves as a nation of judges. A dictator is a dictator whether he wears a crown, a turban, khakis or black robes. Pakistan doesn’t need any more dictators, and we don’t need any more sacred cows, either. That’s just madness.