Pakistan’s security forces have “disappeared” about 600 individuals since 2002, acting since 9/11 and Guantanamo, as if “they have a free hand,” human rights activist lawyer Asma Jahangir says.
The disappeared are “usually picked up by plainclothesmen in four-wheel drives…(and) if the victims are ever seen again, they invariably say that they have been tortured with electric shocks, beaten, given injections, hung upside down by their ankles,” Jahangir said.
Jahangir is described as “a symbol of freedom and defiance, comparable to Aung San Suu Kyi, in Burma” by historian William Dalrymple, who interviewed her for the July 23 issue of The New Yorker magazine.
Jahangir said the military government of President Pervez Musharraf has “no direction, no plan, no schedule” and that, in terms of human rights, it is “worse than any civilian government we’ve ever had.”
“Musharraf is rapidly losing the minimum respect that gives you the moral authority to rule a country,” the activist lawyer said. “The sacking of the Chief Justice (Iftikhar Chaudhry March 9th)was the final straw. If we lose this one, it is all over for the rule of law in this country.”
Jahangir went on to say, “A return to democracy would certainly not be an instant miracle for this country. But it would be a start.” She added, “However flawed democracy here is, it is still the only answer. Once there is a proper political movement, the religious parties will become marginalized. I am not at all gloomy. These protests(against Musharraf) have been a wake-up call.”
“Musharraf’s government has a civilian face --- there are still elections and assemblies---and he has come to believe his own propaganda that he really is a democrat,” Jahangir continued.
Political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa told Dalrymple, “There is a breakdown of effective government. The political parties have all failed to create an environment where the poor can get what they need from the state. The laws are always twisted for the rich…So the poor have begun to look to alternatives for justice.”
In her recent book, “Military Inc.,” Siddiqa said the Pakistani military has business assets of more than $20 billion, with interests ranging from cement and dredging to the manufacturer of corn flakes and the baking of bread, controls a third of the nation’s heavy manufacturing and owns nearly 12 million acres of land.
Author Dalrymple writes, “A cosmopolitan middle class is prospering, yet for the great majority of poorer Pakistanis life remains intolerably hard and access to justice or education is a distant hope: just 1.8% of Pakistan’s GNP is spent on education. “ He continued:
“Instead of investing adequately in education, Musharraf’s government is spending money on a fleet of American F-16s for the Air Force. Health care and other social services for the poor have also been neglected, in contrast to the public services that benefit the wealthy, such as highways and airports--- many of which are world-class.”
Despite the multiple shortcomings of the Musharraf regime, some Pakistanis are asking whether toppling him might not make a bad situation worse. Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of the “Friday Times,” who asked, “Is Asma naïve? It is true that the lawyers’ movement, if it destroys Musharraf, could create more problems than it solves. The fall of Musharraf could well lead to the rise of a violent political Islam.”
However, Mohsin added many thought Gandhi and Martin Luther King were naïve “but it was they, not the realists, who succeeded in changing the course of history.”
What Mohsin means is changing the course of history for the better. By its emphasis on strengthening Pakistan militarily, the Bush administration, though its defense contractors, is siphoning off funds that could be spent ameliorating the lot of Pakistani’s poor, The New Yorker article suggests. This may serve only to increase public disaffection with Musharraf’s rule and hasten the downfall of the ally President Bush seeks to perpetuate in power, an ally who shares his belief in military force and who has no scruples when it comes to torture. #
(Sherwood Ross is a Miami, Fla.-based writer who covers military and political topics. Reach him at email@example.com)