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Bleak prospects for human rights

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

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Once Musharraf entrenches himself as President, the human rights situation in Pakistan might worsen, warns Afrasiab Khattak, the chief of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

DESPITE claims by the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's human rights situation has not improved, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). And if a warning by the head of the independently run rights advocacy group is anything to go by, conditions might worsen, once the General entrenches himself as President for the next five years through the controversial referendum. The General's defence of the referendum was that once people confirmed him, he would work to establish the essence of democracy in Pakistan.

"Pakistan is entering yet another phase of controlled democracy but this time round the General's controlled democracy is going to be far more stringent and harsh than before, and from a human rights perspective the situation by and large remains bleak," the incumbent chief of the HRCP, Afrasiab Khattak, said in an interview in the northwestern Pakistani town of Peshawar where he is based.

Law and order has improved, sectarian violence has been controlled, the press is freer than before, there are no restrictions on political parties unlike as was the norm during military dispensations of the past, and the economy is forging ahead - Musharraf credits himself with leading a "benign" military government. While the number of serious crimes went down, the graph of sectarian killings went up, approximately two women were killed for honour every day, there were renewed indications of restraints on the press, security of media organisations and individual journalists came under increased threat, democracy and democratic practices were curbed harshly and extraordinary restrictions barred political leaders from travelling within the country or visiting a particular city, the HRCP noted in its latest annual report on the state of human rights in the country. The findings go against what the military regime claims.

Afrasiab Khattak is not surprised at the state of affairs. The Constitution, which was suspended by Musharraf ever since he seized power in the October 1999 coup, is not functioning and therefore there is no rule of law in the country, he argues.

"We are again living without a Constitution. It's not possible to have the rule of law without the Constitution," he explains. "Judiciary has been weakened considerably. After judges taking the oath under the provisional constitutional order (PCO), it's not any more the creation of the Constitution." After suspending the Constitution, Musharraf issued PCOs, or quasi-legal orders, in order to seek legitimacy for his actions. Supreme Court Judges normally pledge their allegiance to the Constitution, but some of them renewed their oaths to the effect that they would remain subservient to one of the PCOs. The others, who were considered difficult to bend, were not called to take the oath.

The victim of the weakening of the judiciary and state of lawlessness is the common man, asserts Khattak. "The citizen has no forum to get relief for the violation of his rights when the government is the main violator," he says.

Added to this, according to the human rights activist, the equation where society controls the state, which in turn administers society through governance and the rule of law, has broken down. "People have been pushed to a position of almost total disempowerment and this is the fundamental problem," he says.

However, he speaks of the "silver lining", along the edges of an otherwise dark political scene, owing to the political awareness among the people. "The level of awareness is far higher than it used to be (about political and women's rights)," he says, with an apparent sense of satisfaction.

The result of the increased awareness about democracy, which Pakistani Generals have been denying their people, is that Musharraf has had to promise it whenever he speaks to the people, to the media and at his referendum rallies. Khattak rejects the referendum as unconstitutional (he gave the interview before the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the legality of the process).

"The idea of democracy is still very strong. They cannot still openly deny it because our people want it," says Khattak, an ethnic Pashtun who has suffered at the hands of military rulers for speaking for human rights and for demanding the people's right to political participation. He believes that "they (the Generals) have not changed their attitude" but the changed international situation prevents the junta from committing "open aggression".

Even when the international situation has changed there are efforts for more control over the levers of power by the military rulers, courtesy the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), the so-called reform shop. For now, among many other grandiose schemes on the NRB's anvil is an ordinance on police reforms. A simple characterisation of the proposed reforms is given by a newspaper. Once honed for promulgation, "no one's privacy, dignity or rights will be safe", The Frontier Post, a Peshawar-based newspaper, warned in its editorial titled "Spectre of a police state", about the proposed plans to improve the dreaded police department.

"We are really concerned at empowering the police more than ever before," says Khattak, adding that the police are being made to do "the dirty things the Army would not like to do" and that Pakistan "was already a police state".

IT is not that the HRCP finds everything about the military rule bad. The commission, for instance, supported the plan for the devolution of power. But now, as Khattak apprehends, the system is set to be used to undermine the future Prime Minister and the Parliament that he or she would lead, from the bottom. On the top of the structure, when it emerges after the general elections scheduled for October, would sit the National Security Council (NSC). "The supreme cabinet (NSC) would not be accountable to any (civilian) government, ensuring government by the Generals"- that is how Khattak envisions the future civilian government. Musharraf will sit at the top of the power pyramid. The more the military ventures into politics, the more politics will seep into the military, which would ultimately "bring chaos, threatening the very basis of the federation", Khattak warns. "The Generals should realise that the country's integrity requires respect for the Constitution."

To the problematic question how the military could be prevented from usurping power and subverting democratic order in the future, Khattak has a simple proposition: "It (the military) should function as armies function the world over, as part of the forces of defence of a country."

A word of advice by Khattak, perhaps to Pakistan's two main political parties whose leaders had been Prime Ministers but now live in exile: "For political parties to democratise their own function they should not function like courts around dynasties." Their factions are apparently not able to put up solid resistance to Musharraf's one-man rule, since those who can rally the Opposition forces are outside the country, fleeing prosecution.

Not many people, in particular the government and the country's Islamic radicals, take in the right spirit what the HRCP has to say about democracy and human rights. The government invariably rejects the findings of the organisation and the religious groups accuse the HRCP and its officials of being stooges of the West.

"The government cannot arrogate to itself the right to monopolise patriotism. Unfortunately many of the bankrupt (official) policies are detrimental to this country," Khattak explains.

The HRCP is an independent organisation and its office-bearers work voluntarily and make their bread and butter from their respective professions, says Khattak, who is a practising lawyer at the provincial High Court in Peshawar.

The HRCP was formed in 1986 by the Jilani Foundation, which was founded in memory of Ghulam Jilani, a political and human rights activist. Two of Jilani's daughters, Hina Jilani and Asma Jehangir, are among the founders of the HRCP.

Khattak joined the HRCP in 1989 after returning from exile in Afghanistan. He rose to become one of its Vice-Chairmen in 1995 and was elected Chairman in 1999. He was re-elected to head the organisation for a further three-year term in March 2002.

Born in the district of Kohat, south of Peshawar, Khattak was a student leader. He made a full entry into the politics of resistance by joining the nationalist National Awami Party. He was jailed along with the top leaders of the party to face sedition charges at the controversial Hyderabad Tribunal. The party had launched opposition to a repressive military crackdown in Baluchistan province that had been ordered by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq toppled Bhutto, the Tribunal was disbanded and the nationalist leaders freed.

Khattak later joined the National Democratic Party, a leftist group, but left it in view of its "soft corner" for Zia's martial law. In the late 1970s he was jailed in Baluchistan for speaking against the martial law. He was released after a year but he left for Afghanistan fearing further persecution for his non-conformist ideas. Kabul was then already home to many Pakistani dissidents. Among them were Ajmal Khattak, then a nationalist leader, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's two sons.

About his return to Pakistan, he says: "I had to wait for quite some time because he (Zia) delayed and delayed the holding of elections."

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 01, 2002.)

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