In Pakistan, A Tale of Two Women

There is no doubt Pakistan has experienced a tumultuous 2010. Heartbreaking reports of terrorism filled the headlines as floods submerged one-fifth of our nation. Our great country is working to better itself on multiple fronts – social, political, and economic – and our current place on the world stage allowed the entire world to bear witness to our progress. Two women, in completely separate instances, have captured some of the biggest challenges we must overcome. They are Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and Aasia Bibi. These two women would become respective symbols for right wing and liberal groups, as activists on both sides sought to define Pakistan’s national identity.

Aafia SiddiquiThe arrest, trial and verdict in the case of Dr. Aafia Siidiqui captured the world’s attention. An American-educated neuroscientist, she was convicted after a jury in a US federal court found her guilty of intent to murder Americans in Afghanistan. In September 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison. A Muslim who engaged in Islamic charity work in the US, she moved back to Pakistan in 2002. It was reported that her second husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (the infamous alleged planner of the September 11th attacks) mentioned her name to his interrogators, saying she was involved in similar activities, and thus led to her own interrogation by authorities.

Asia BibiAasia Bibi has nothing in common with Aafia’s background or the terrorism links. But her situation too, captured the world’s attention and brought sharply worded criticism towards the Pakistani laws that seemingly punish minorities.  Her story begins in the blazing summer heat of 2009, when other rural workers refused water from her because she was a Christian. The 45-year old mother of five was charged under Pakistan’s archaic and cruel blasphemy laws. The case has drawn international condemnation, and even Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release.

With the issues highlighted in both cases, we can see Pakistan faces challenges on all fronts – security, political, and social.

Multiple protests and riots have erupted all over Pakistan as supporters of Aafia Siddiqui, as her case has added to the fuel to the “Hate America” fire. She has become the poster child for the idea that Americans hate Pakistanis, and have framed an innocent woman. In a country overflowing with conspiracy theories, it is hardly surprising that Aafia’s tale has proven to intensify the right wing base.

Aasia Bibi’s case has brought to light the vicious anti-minority laws on the books, and a movement to amend those heinous laws has begun. But just as the right wingers sought to capitalize on this issue as well (a cleric has offered 500,000 rupees to anyone who kills Aasia), it seems the PPP has stepped up to honor its platform of equality for all.  Punjab’s Governor, Salmaan Taseer, has been outspoken on this issue, and will seek a pardon from President Zardari to stop the order of execution. We can only hope the appeals court will spare her life.

Terrorism, security issues, minorities’ rights are some of the many issues Pakistan has to face in the coming year. The hope and prayer will always be that in the end, we have created a more perfect society, one that treats all its citizens well.

Senator Talha Mehmood’s Media Circus

Is Talha Mehmood Senator or Media Circus Ringmaster?Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani is a favourite punching bag of far-right-wing political types. With regards to the case of Dr Aafia, the first thing out of the mouths of these people was that it was a set up devised by the PPP and orchestrated by Haqqani who they say is a puppet of the Americans. Only one problem – all their claims proved false. So why are they now calling the Ambassador away from his work to attend a media circus?

If PPP and Haqqani had devised to send Aafia to US custody, they have a much more amazing political machine than anyone gives them credit for. Actually, Aafia appears to have been detained under the rule of Musharraf, that darling of the right.

It was General Musharraf and the leaders of an elite intelligence agency who arrested Dr Siddiqui along with her small children and, having separated her from her siblings, presented her as a gift to the US military in one of the most disgraceful acts ever committed by the head of an Islamic country or by the ruler of any country. The “commando” president would later audaciously claim credit for handing over such suspects (refer to his book In the line of fire). It is this aspect that now needs to be analysed and addressed.

So what has Husain Haqqani’s role been? According to Aaj TV, Haqqani has been one of her most ardent defenders. Of course, Haqqani was working through diplomatic and legal channels, not on TV talk shows.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, has also taken a keen interest in the Afia Siddiqui case given its political importance at home, sources say. He had two meetings with the Bush administration’s Attorney General and has made President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder at least four times to discuss the case. The US government has been unusually considerate in allowing these meetings, American officials point out, as it is not usually US policy to let foreign ambassadors get involved in cases pending before its courts.

Senior diplomats from the Pakistani embassy in Washington have been following Aafia Siddiquis case since the beginning. On the insistence of her brother Mohammed Ali Siddiqui, an expensive team of lawyers was hired to defend her in court with special approval from Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. It was unusual for the Pakistan government to pay top human rights lawyers, who had successfully defended other Al-Qaeda linked prisoners in the past, to defend a single Pakistani citizen who was not arrested while in service.

Unfortunately, that work was not good enough for Senator Talha Mehmood (JUI-F), who has now requested the Ambassador to return to Islamabad to explain why all the money spent could not secure her release.

But perhaps the problem is actually one belonging to the Senator, and not the Ambassador. It seems Talha Mehmood is still hanging onto that old belief that money will buy results. Is this not the same Senator who was exposed by Ahmad Noorani’s 28 January 2009 article for The News, “The sorry story of political blackmail of a 72-year old lady“?

The chairman of a Senate standing committee has been almost caught red-handed while trying to deprive a 72-year-old lady of her only but expensive F-7 bungalow in Islamabad and the story of the legal and physical abuse and torture depicts the plight of all those citizens who are victims of the powerful political elite of this country.

In this gory drama of illegal misuse of power, outright fraud, cheating and use of blackmail and physical force, The News talked to all the parties concerned, met them several times, saw the documents they provided, some of which turned out to be fake later, and found that the old lady and her 90-year-old husband had become victims of brute political influence.

Senator Talha Mahmood Aryan, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Interior, a ruling-JUI-F senator, has been occupying the house of the old woman in a posh Sector F-7 of Islamabad for the last seven years and not ready to vacate it despite high court and lower court’s verdicts while the whole Islamabad Police is openly siding with the chairman of the Senate interior committee.

Senator Talha, when approached by The News, provided some documents for proving the legality of his occupation of the house. However, all these documents given by Talha to this correspondent proved fake. When the documents provided by Talha to The News were found fake, a close friend of Talha, associated with the issue, approached this scribe and asked to mediate and close the issue.

Senator Talha’s anger seems to be based in his belief that justice in America works the same way as in Pakistan where it is simply for sale to those with enough money and influence. In Senator Talha’s mind, our Embassy spent millions to buy a result – so where is it?

Of course, for all its faults, America does not suffer from the same level of corruption in its courts as we do. It is telling, also, that the Senator is happy to make some political circus by calling a hearing for the Ambassador, but was not able to provide any assistance to the actual defense of Aafia.

And that’s what all of this is about, really, is it not? Whether the booing at our Minister or the requests for explanation from our Ambassadors, we seem to revel in beating up our own officials and never considering whether what they are doing is advancing our interests. You don’t win a match by only hitting sixes – you have to be able to hit block strokes also.

If Senator Talha really wanted to help Dr Aafia, why not call a session to go over what has been done in her defence and identify what has helped (diplomatic pressure, surely), what has hurt (her outbursts, certainly), and what is missing from at least getting her transferred home where we can conduct our own investigation and trials.

But helping Dr Aafia does not seem to be at the top of Senator Talha’s priorities. Rather, he seems intent on making a political media circus by calling home an Ambassador for a confrontational hearing. It’s a waste of time that helps no one. Take the advice of another MNA, Ayaz Amir, who is neither PPP nor JUI-F:

This should be a time for everyone concerned to sit back and take stock of things. We have wasted too much time. Perhaps this was only to be expected but now is the time to leave the past behind and move forward, leaving it to historians to fight over the battles of yesterday.

The best interests of Pakistan are served by putting aside petty political battles and working together to achieve our potential and our goals. Unless our goal as a nation is to have more media circuses than any other country, maybe we should stop wasting time on them.

The Sanity Deficit

Nadeem Paracha

This article by Nadeem Paracha appeared in Dawn on 10 October 2010.

She is being called the “daughter of the nation” who needs to be rescued from the fanged jaws of the Americans. TV channels buzz with the talk of this gallant woman who was found guilty by an American court for attempted murder, and on whose defence the government has already spent a whopping two million dollars.

I remember, on February 5, 2010, when Karachi became the horrid scene of two bomb attacks that killed dozens of men, women and children, leaders of various mainstream religious parties were marching up and down the streets of Lahore condemning Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s (then ongoing) trial, insisting that she was innocent, and demanding that she be released and returned to Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the Taliban followed suit.

A few days before that, when TV channels were airing shameful scenes of groups of lawyers outside the Lahore High Court cursing and abusing media men and relatives of a 12-year-old Shazia, who was said to have died at the hands of a lawyer, the same religious parties were behaving as if the young maid’s torturous death meant absolutely nothing compared to Aafia’s plight in the US. Not a single rally or a word of condemnation in this respect slipped out from the many defenders of the Aafia cause. Clearly, her champions are not bothered by the plight of those women who face humiliation every day and then languish in a depressing wilderness. Why, are these wronged girls and women not daughters of this nation?

Never have the highly vocal keepers of our women’s sanctity even superficially censured the aggravating antics of monsters like the Taliban and Al Qaeda at whose hands thousands of innocent Pakistanis have lost their lives. None of the many women, children and men who were mercilessly slaughtered by the extremists, it seems, were good enough to also be celebrated as brothers, sisters and children of this nation. Remember Zarina Marri and Dr Shazia Khalid? Zarina went missing during the Musharraf regime after being accused of harbouring Baloch nationalists. She was said to have been abducted by intelligence agencies in 2005 and kept isolated in a cell in Karachi.

Likewise, you may also ask why didn’t this very godly brigade take up the case of Dr Shazia Khalid, the doctor and employee of Pakistan Petroleum, who was beaten and raped allegedly by a captain at a Sui hospital in 2005? She was moved to a psychiatric facility in Karachi. Later, she was put under house arrest and prevented from contacting lawyers, doctors and human rights activists. She barely managed to leave Pakistan after facing death threats.

For every single Aafia, there is a Zarina, Shazia and, of course, a Mukhtaran Mai — victims of violent feudal traditions, unaccountable arrogance or sheer social hypocrisy and apathy. In the context of the highly subjective media attention that Aafia is getting (along with her understandably distressed family members), one can also ask why Shazia Khalid’s or Zarina Marri’s families were never interviewed by TV channels. Why have we not seen mass scale demonstrations in Pakistan for justice for these two women, or for Mukhtaran Mai? Does a distressed Pakistani woman need to be mistreated only by Americans to garner any sympathy?

The truth is that religious parties and right-wing flashes-in-the-pans that have sprung up in electronic media and the political spectrum, are mostly ideologically bankrupt, operating in a vacuum created by constant failure of militant jihad to impose its own versions of faith and politics. The worldview being popularised by such outfits and personalities has dangerously mutated Pakistan’s social evolution.

Instead of society and the polity taking a natural evolutionary course by developing a democratic mindset that respects ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity within and helps foster a progressive relationship with other nations, this populist worldview bursting out of Pakistan’s media just looks for demons without. This is precisely the mindset from which many are screening the Aafia case while they remain blind to the fate of the many other Pakistani women who have suffered at the hands of bigots, feudal lords and dictators at home.

So what is the truth in the Aafia case? It is something that can only be rationally debated and investigated. However, this most likely is not an option for our electronic media and their studio guests.

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.

Is the US an ally or not?

The following column by Farrukh Khan Pitafi appeared in Daily Times.

Farrukh Khan PitafiThose who have come to like the television series West Wing and liked the character Josh Lyman will surely feel broken hearted at the departure of Rahm Emanuel from the Obama administration. For a while, there have been media speculations that the dynamic chief of staff on whom Josh’s character is said to be based would leave the administration. So he did and do not ask me why. These are mad times and in this pandemonium people often fall apart. But things were not like this since eternity. Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars portrays him as a trusted confidant of the president. Recently, another book that came and was criticised in my humble view quite unjustly is Tony Blair’s autobiography A Journey: My Political Life. The book is not only a first person narrative of the critical events of our recent past, but also an insight into the mind of the man we once loved, and then loathed. If anything, President Obama needs to read this book so that his memoirs after his stint in power do not sound so apologetic and self-defeating.

Obama’s Wars, however, brings to us an absolutely different story and mercifully a lot of answers to our current predicament. At the very start, the book establishes Pakistan as the biggest concern for the Obama administration and our very nation is the chief problem even at its end. And those who do not want to understand why should at least read the book with some empathy. I am not here to write a review of the book, only to compliment the fact that it gives an interesting insight into the minds of the key players, including our politicians, generals and other movers and shakers. The distrust of Ambassador Husain Haqqani by people from within Pakistan is noteworthy among the details. Also, the profile of Bruce Riedel may appear interesting because many in this country blame him for sowing the seeds of apprehension in the hearts of the Obama administration’s intelligence managers.

But regardless of what is written in the book, or the image Mr Riedel has projected, the mutual distrust between the two countries has reached new heights. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have stepped up their drone and occasional manned assaults. Pakistan has stopped NATO supplies to Afghanistan in return and somehow we think this is the solution. General Petraeus is now widely being proclaimed our biggest enemy. And somehow we forget that we are talking about a nation that, in an ironic twist of fate, has been our only constant ally since the very inception of our nation. Look, do not question my loyalty to my country and do not think for a second that I am the lackey of another. I did not write Pakistan’s history and I did not take the critical decisions that define us, but that is the way things are. From the days of Liaquat Ali Khan to date, this is the only country that has defined our strategic choices.

I often feel nauseous at the hypocrisy prevalent in our ‘mainstream’ media. When we comment on the drone attacks and Dr Aafia Siddiqui, seldom do we mention that Pakistan compromised its territorial sovereignty the day we accepted our role in the proxy war against the Soviet Union and collected non-state elements from across the globe. Nor do we remind the audience that this country’s thin economic lifeline is in commission because of this ally that we are so determined to ostracise and alienate. This is some kind of Peter Pan syndrome where we simply refuse to grow up. I do not approve of the predator attacks, but folks have we ever wondered why did this day ever come to pass?

Not only are we so silly and dishonest that we have not built anything credible in this country, which could bring some growth in our GDP, we are so hypocritical that we do not even want to accept that the country spending money on us to cover for our financial deficiencies is in fact doing us a favour. No, there have to be circles within circles, conspiracies to rob us of something that we have miserably failed to discover, and of course that noxious agenda to destroy the Islamic ummah in which we barely fit. It is astonishing to see that even by Islamic standards we are supposed to be thankful to someone that obliges us with favours, no matter Muslim or not. But I guess we will not do that but go on inventing a new Islam for ourselves.

We flatter ourselves with delusions that we have a truckload of other geostrategic options with nations as our friends, dying to come to our rescue. Wake up friends, no one is there. China’s own economy is overheating. The Saudis would not do anything to displease the US, and Iran is already encircled, thanks to the wisdom of its leaders. On the other hand, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Washington are one and the same thing. And this is the only place where we can get aid to rebuild the economy and in case of honest attempts, becoming truly independent eventually.

Then there is the question of counterintelligence. In the above-mentioned book, it has been made clear that at the start of the drone programme, our country was informed in advance to minimise civilian casualties, but it resulted in the terrorists being tipped off about the assault. Hence they decided to inform us after the attacks. In other words, our own stupidity has compromised our leverage with the coalition forces. Granted there can be some misunderstanding about our intentions also, but to compromise the only leverage we have been left with over the western forces by withdrawing the logistical support is foolish at best. The time has come for the powers that be in the Islamic Republic to make a critical decision. If we think that the league of obscurantists called the Taliban are a good idea, we should give up pretences and surrender the country to the thugs. If not, we should be sincere to our country and alleviate the US concerns and resolve issues through negotiations.

The writer is an independent columnist and a talk show host.