Monday, September 17, 2007

The Last Word: Aitzaz Ahsan

The Last Word: Aitzaz Ahsan
[Musharraf's] was a criminal act punishable by a 10-year jail sentence at hard labor. By Ron Moreau: Newsweek International; September 16, 2007

Sept. 24, 2007 issue - Pakistani lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, 62, scored what he calls "the greatest victory of my life" when he successfully defended the Supreme Court's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and won his reinstatement in July after President Pervez Musharraf had summarily dismissed him four months earlier. Ahsan, a former Interior minister under Benazir Bhutto and a stalwart of her Pakistan People's Party, also engineered the popular campaign in support of Chaudhry—which has developed into an anti-Musharraf movement—personally chauffeuring Chaudhry in popular processions across the country. Although he has recused himself from arguing cases before Chaudhry, he will present an opinion to the Supreme Court this week when it takes up petitions challenging the legality of Musharraf's election to another five-year term as president. In his book-lined law office in Islamabad, Ahsan spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau about former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's deportation, the upcoming court cases and Bhutto's negotiations with Musharraf for a power-sharing deal.

MOREAU: What's your view of Musharraf's deportation of Nawaz Sharif?

AHSAN: It shows that General Musharraf has run out of political options. He committed a crime under Pakistani law by abducting a man and moving him from point A to B against his will. Musharraf's act was not simply a matter of contempt of the Supreme Court's ruling, which is punishable by six months of imprisonment. This was a criminal act punishable by a 10-year jail sentence at hard labor.

Can those serious criminal charges really be pressed against Musharraf?
Sharif's party will prefer criminal charges against [Musharraf] at a local police station any day now. When the case against [Sharif's] deportation comes to court, I'm sure [Musharraf] will be indicted. This [deportation] could not have been done without Musharraf's complicity, just as the chief justice could not have been arrested [last March] without Musharraf having ordered it. This case will chase him even in his days of exile outside Pakistan, and the Americans better know it.

How can he be "chased," as you put it?

Once he is out of power, and he will not be in power much longer. After nearly nine years, he is coming to the end of his tenure. He is not as effective and all-powerful as he used to be. Remember, Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Libya or Egypt. It is a South Asian Muslim country where due process of law and an electoral mandate are crucial to the legitimacy of government.

How do you think the Supreme Court will rule this week on the challenge to Musharraf's run for re-election?

It would be wrong for me to express to the press right now any opinion that I have about the case against the president. But once I have given my opinion before the court, I will be able to comment on it. But the Supreme Court he will be facing has come back into its own through the people's power.

What will happen when President Musharraf officially announces his candidacy for re-election as president, perhaps this week?
I think Musharraf's re-election by [the National Assembly and the four state assemblies] is going to be a non-election, a virtual election in the modern sense of the term, an election that appears to be something that it is not. It's not going to impart any legitimacy to him. How can these assemblies give a mandate to a person for another five years when they only have one month left? Suppose Musharraf is re-elected and then his party is routed two or three months later in general elections? Where will his mandate stand then? This is foul. He is creating a fraud on the Constitution.

Do you expect a popular reaction?

I think the turmoil will start the day General Musharraf files his nomination papers. Then the initial stages of a movement against him will begin, similar to the movement that supported the chief justice. That is a movement the West should have embraced. But it seemed to have been too enamored with a tottering, slipping Pervez Musharraf.

Are Pakistani politicians expecting too much of the Supreme Court?
Probably. But I don't think that what the Supreme Court is going to do is going to determine the future. The matter has now gone into the public domain. People will react. And what will the government do if Nawaz Sharif's wife gets onto a plane and heads for Pakistan? And if his son and daughter come the following week? Will the government keep doing the same thing?

Will Sharif's deportation affect the ongoing dialogue between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf?

The PPP dialogue with Musharraf has certain parameters, which Miss Bhutto has emphasized. One of her conditions has always been that there must be a free and fair election with the return of all the exiles, including Nawaz Sharif. She has said that 100 times. Is Musharraf prepared to let Sharif come back? If not, then one of her major conditions is not being met. So what happens to the negotiations? Negotiating with Musharraf carries a very high cost, as he is the most unpopular, indeed hated, man in Pakistan.

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