PAKISTAN: As the government has protesting lawyers and activists arrested, hope fades for an independent judiciary and a democratic future
For a government that came into power promising to champion the rights of lawyers and restore the independence of the judiciary, the cabinet of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has done a dramatic about-turn.
A day into the latest campaign by Pakistani lawyers and activitists, the Punjab government has been pushing the limits of Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of five or more people. Reports to the AHRC have described men, women and minors being pulled from their bedrooms by police at night, of blockades and that have shut down traffic in Karachi and much of the motorway to Islamabad, and of routes from Sindh and Baluchistan closed with containers. Pledges by North West Frontier and Baluchistan provincial governments not to detain protestors have been overruled by federal ministers, who are organizing arrests in those provinces too. Peaceful marchers have been man-handled and beaten on camera by policemen and men who are not in uniform.
The civilians are highlighting a pledge made by the government a year ago and not yet honoured, to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and take back laws put in place by former president Pervez Musharraf under a state of emergency, which threaten independent institutions in the country. One of these is the right of the president to dissolve parliament.
Mirroring a 'long march' taken a year ago, protest organisers planned to start the four-day campaign outside courthouses in cities across the country, and for activists to walk the hundreds of miles to Islamabad¡¦s Constitution Avenue, where they would hold a sit-in. The lawyers have been joined by political activists and opponents of Zardari such as Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, who have also called for independence in the courts.
The AHRC is gravely concern about this turn of events, and the damage it sees being done to democratic rule. The planned protests were non-violent and they have been aggressively met. They were arranged to address vital issues that have been irresponsibly dodged by the administration for a year. Pakistan has a right to the restoration of its judiciary and to an independent parliament, and under the constitution of Pakistan its people have the right to free assembly and free speech. To create a violent situation rather than democratically address the issues behind a country-wide demonstration leaves the nation vulnerable. The possibility of military intervention is never slim in Pakistan, and in times of instability it increases greatly.
According to police, more than four hundred activists have been arrested over the past few days, and though many were released shortly after, some key figures in the protest are being held in Central Prison, Karachi, under a 15-day detention order. As this report goes out these include: Mehmoodul Hassan, Vice Chairman of the Sindh Bar Council; Muhammad Ali Abbassi, President of the Karachi Bar Association; Naeem Qureshi, General Secretary of the Karachi Bar Association; Tariq Mehmood Khan, Joint Secretary of the Karachi Bar Association; Mushtaq Jehangiri, former Vice President of the Karachi Bar Association, Amanullah Yousufzai, former President of the Malir Bar Association; and Fateh Ali Shah, Suhail Beg Noori, Ehitesham Khan, Ishfaq Hussain and Mohammad Azam, who are all lawyers from Karachi.
The AHRC demands that all those arrested be immediately released and that their right to free speech and assembly be restored. Compensation must be offered to all those abused under the misused section 144. We also expect the government to listen to the democratic voice of those marching and to honour the promises on which it was elected, rather than emulating, very convincingly, the repressive regime that it replaced.