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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Q&A: 'Pakistan Is Under Martial Law' -Interview with I A Rehman, human rights leader

LAHORE, Nov 15 (IPS) - I.A. Rehman, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), is among those who insist that the country is now effectively under martial law and that the human rights situation in the country, under emergency rule since Nov. 3, is at its lowest ebb ever.

Given that leading human rights activists, judges, lawyers and journalists seem to be the target of beatings and confinement by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s armed forces, Rehman’s views carry credence. While Rehman is free, after three-days under arrest, other prominent people have since been picked up, notably cricket icon-turned-politician, Imran Khan.

IPS correspondent Aoun Abbas met Rehman at his Lahore residence to get a handle on what is happening in Pakistan and where the country, a key ally in the United States-led global ‘war on terror’, is headed.

IPS: How do you see the imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan?

IAR: Look this is not emergency. This is martial law because Pervez Musharraf has suspended the constitution, although emergency can be imposed within the framework of constitution. The constitution provides three options to government: it can suspend fundamental rights of people, it can extend the tenure of legislature assemblies and finally it can make laws for the provinces. While emergency cannot be imposed by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) but by the President, the orders that Musharraf issued were from the COAS. He has also promulgated a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) and under this he can make any law.

IPS: But Musharraf has announced that general election will be conducted before Jan. 9, 2008 and his supporters are of the view that emergency is good for democracy in Pakistan.

IAR: The whole transition to democracy is meaningless under emergency. Even elections will bring nothing for this country under the present circumstances. In my opinion emergency has made autocracy in Pakistan even more autocratic. It is true that before the promulgation of emergency Musharraf was already ruling the country by his own choice, but now all the powers have gone to him. He alone is responsible to decide.

IPS: How do you see the human rights situation in Pakistan after emergency?

IAR: The promulgation of emergency itself is a big blow to human rights. It is a basic human right to be governed by elected representatives, but emergency has deprived people of this right. You see what is happening in the streets every day; police is beating up people mercilessly, arresting lawyers, political workers and human rights activists without any reason. So, the human rights situation in Pakistan at present is very poor.

IPS: Why is government arresting human rights activists?

IAR: There is no justification for arresting and detaining human rights activists. Possibly the government is afraid of them because it knows that political parties have lost their credibility to some extent, while civil society activists still have considerable credit among masses, and if they condemn the emergency common people will definitely follow their stance and they may start protesting against it.

IPS: The Pakistan Army Act of 1952 has been amended to empower the army to arrest, investigate and put on trial civilians in military courts, if charged with committing crimes against defence, security or armed forces of Pakistan.

IAR: This amendment is completely against human rights. You see it is the basic right of every individual to be provided with due legal process. One has a right to counsel, right to defence and right to appeal, while this military act does not provide it. Against the decision of a military court one can only appeal to the chief of the army and that is it. If the army chief denies the appeal, one cannot go anywhere else on a military court’s decision.

IPS: It is being said that this emergency is directed mainly against the judiciary and the media.

IAR: That is right to a great extent. When Musharraf met foreign diplomats after the promulgation of emergency he did not talk to them about political parties or politicians but he talked much about the judiciary. All previous martial law regimes in Pakistan were directed against political parties, while this one is against the judiciary and media. We have had many martial laws but this is the first time that people have been deprived of the right to information. The regime has not only banned cable operators from showing news channels but has also banned the sale of dish antennas.

IPS: Do you agree with the code of conduct for media that the government is trying to seek?

IAR: I have not seen the code of conduct document so far. But, it has been our consistent stand that the code of conduct must not have any involvement of the government. Code of conduct everywhere is voluntary. Even in the time of Ayub Khan, there was a press council and a press code managed by the editors. If people or the government had a complaint, it was to be rectified by those bodies. In fact, the present regime is afraid of the truth.

Our stance has always been that in martial laws and autocracies, things are kept secret which leads to great losses. We know from our experience that after the ten years of Ayub Khan’s rule, we lost East Pakistan (Bangladesh) because we did not know what exactly was happening in that part. In democracies, information is always available.

IPS: So, you think judiciary and media are the main sufferers of this emergency.

IAR: The real victims of this coup are the people of Pakistan. When you discriminate against the judiciary and gag the media both suffer, but the ultimate victims are the people. If they do not get a good government, they suffer. Then there is no democracy without the judiciary. As for the media, it has under attack so that people cannot formulate their own opinion by getting relevant information. The government is not against these TV news channels but against what they are doing -- informing people. This is a way to put a stop to the democratic process. So democracy is the real target. All these are pillars of democracy.


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