US Congress concerned over unrest in Pakistan
The News: June 6, 2007
By Mariana Baabar
ISLAMABAD: The US Congress has written to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the deteriorating state of affairs in Pakistan as a result of dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Joseph Biden Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tom Lantos, Chair House Foreign Relations Committee, and Irena Ros-Lehtinen, the Ranking Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, in their urgent letter to Rice expressed what they say is the spiral of civil unrest and harshly suppressed protest in Pakistan with increasing concern.
"We ask that you publicly call for an immediate end to the violence, and urge the government of Pakistan to commit to holding free and fair elections by the year's end," says the letter, a copy of which was sent to The News from Washington.
They told Rice that in some cases the media have likewise been subjected to violent intimidation, in an apparent attempt to prevent coverage of the pro-democracy protests. "On March 15, following the initial protests over the suspension of Chief Justice Chaudhry, police ransacked the offices of Geo TV in Islamabad. During the recent Karachi protests, Aaj TV station came under violent attack for over seven hours, with police and paramilitary force refusing to come to the rescue of its staff," adds the letter.
The lawmakers told Rice that President Musharraf's attempt to dismiss the chief justice has sparked protests of people in tens of thousands, spearheaded by bar associations and supported by moderate political parties and civil society organisations. The government's response has been to arrest, detain and beat citizens, many of them lawyers demonstrating peacefully.
The US lawmakers said that "the violence in Karachi that left at least 39 dead and over 150 wounded appears to show disturbing signs of collusion between the MQM and government forces." The paramilitary Rangers and police, whether by inaction or acting on specific orders, clearly failed to protect the lives of citizens under attack by armed gangs.
The letter says that there have been disturbing reports of security forces closing off streets while gunmen targeted Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) activists. There have also been disturbing ethnic overtones to some of the violence, as the Punjabis, the Pakhtuns and the Sindhis were reportedly attacked by the Muhajir-based MQM. There are numerous reports of official and unofficial acts of intimidation against members of the legal community.
On May 10, Muneeer A Malik, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a key member of Justice Chaudhry's legal team, was physically assaulted in Karachi. On May 14, Syed Hammad Raza, the Supreme Court's Additional Registrar and aide to Justice Chaudhry, was murdered in what supporters are labelling a political assassination.
Cases have been filed against two dozen lawyers under the Anti-Terrorist Act, an apparently spurious use of this Act to prosecute political opponents of the government: among the targets who clearly have no credible ties to terrorism is Asma Jahangir, president of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission and UN Special Rapporteur.
"It would appear that underlying these protests is a widespread impression that President Musharraf may not live up to his promise to hold free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections this year. It is our impression that many Pakistan citizens view the president's campaign against the nation's chief justice as an attempt to cow the judicial system into sanctioning electoral rigging and extra-constitutional delay of a return to al fully civilian government," says the letter.
"The driving force behind these protests is Pakistani civil society: lawyers' associations, moderate political parties, journalists' unions, and other mainstream groups are committed to the rule of law and open democracy. A flawed election would marginalise moderate parties and voices, empowering extremist groups to exert far greater influence over Pakistani society," says the letter.
The lawmakers told Rice that the national interests of the United States and Pakistan are both served by a speedy restoration of full democracy to Pakistan, and by an end to state-sponsored intimidation — often violent — Pakistani citizens protesting government actions in a legal and peaceful manner." We urge you to make a public appeal to this end, and to raise these matters forcefully in your interactions with Pakistani government officials," says the letter signed by the three American lawmakers.