Saturday, December 01, 2007

Is Pakistan Heading Toward ‘Rigged’ Vote?

Lawyer Says Pakistan Heading Toward ‘Rigged’ Vote
By JANE PERLEZ: New York Times, December 1, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 30 — A corporate lawyer dressed in a pinstriped suit, Munawar Akhtar, 71, clutched a poster of a defiant colleague held in solitary confinement for three weeks, and marched Friday to the house of the dismissed chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The act of solidarity was necessary, the gray-haired Mr. Akhtar said, because the promise of President Pervez Musharraf to lift emergency rule in two weeks was deceptive.

The chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, remains under house arrest. Without his reinstatement and the restoration of other judges who were also dismissed, Mr. Akhtar said, the parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8 cannot meet international standards.

“No matter how many observers you send, the elections will still be rigged and we will have what Pakistan has been going through for the past 55 years,” said Mr. Akhtar, a partner in the Islamabad branch of the London law firm Amhurst Brown Colombotti, as he and the protesters faced a phalanx of 500 policemen outside Mr. Chaudhry’s house.

Pakistan’s lawyers have led the opposition to Mr. Musharraf since his dismissal of the Supreme Court and declaration of emergency rule on Nov. 3. Some observers say Mr. Musharraf is relaxing strictures after being sworn in as a civilian president on Thursday morning and announcing that night that he would lift emergency rule on Dec. 16. But the lawyers are saying he is not really doing so.

Stories of rough prison treatment of lawyers who were arrested after Nov. 3 are emerging through relatives.

Munir Malik, 57, a former head of the Supreme Court Bar Association whose photograph was displayed at Friday’s protest, was held in a remote jail in solitary confinement in a cell so tiny he could not stretch his legs, said his nephew, Jahmasp R. Razvi.

A neon light shone into the cell, making it almost impossible for Mr. Malik to sleep, Mr. Razvi said. Mr. Malik’s notebook and pencil were confiscated, and in protest over what he considered the inhuman conditions, Mr. Malik went on a hunger strike, Mr. Razvi said.

Mr. Malik was hospitalized in Islamabad last weekend with severe kidney problems. He remains in a hospital but has been formally released from detention.

Three other leading lawyers remain under house arrest, including Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

Sixty of about 100 judges who served on the Supreme Court and four provincial high courts have been ordered to remain in their homes because they have refused to take the new oath of office under emergency rule, according to Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court judge.

The chief justice and his court were the centerpiece of Mr. Musharraf’s emergency decree. The president accused the court, and Mr. Chaudhry in particular, of being ready to block his re-election, and dismissed the entire bench.

Mr. Musharraf’s second term was ratified by a more pliant Supreme Court.

Some opposition political parties have said they will boycott the parliamentary elections unless the court is allowed back by Dec. 15. But one of the major parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Benazir Bhutto, has announced it will take part in the elections, and it is not clear whether the boycott will hold.

The United States and other Western governments have stopped short of calling for the restoration of the Supreme Court, even as they have pressed Mr. Musharraf to lift emergency rule in time for the elections.

The Western governments have been reluctant to insist on the return of the old Supreme Court because, like Mr. Musharraf, they say Mr. Chaudhry was interfering in the executive branch, a Western diplomat said.

Some lawyers said they were disappointed that Western diplomats who had met with leaders of the opposition had not shown the same interest in meeting them.

Recounting the experiences of the lawyers in jail, relatives told of sleep deprivation, cold and sleeping on stone floors. Tariq Mehmood, 57, a retired judge, spent three weeks on the floor of a cell, with no heating or bedding, said his wife, Sohaila Tariq, who is also a lawyer.

Her sons were able to visit him in the Sahiwal jail, about an eight-hour drive south from their Lahore home, she said. But she was forbidden to see him, she said.

He was transferred to a Lahore hospital on Monday suffering from exhaustion and back and nerve problems. “He’s looking very weak,” Ms. Tariq said after visiting him on Tuesday.

She said that her husband was still resolute and that his first words to her were, “I am on the path of truth.”

A doctor at the hospital said the jailers had used bright lights, noise and fighting tomcats to keep Mr. Tariq awake in the isolation cell. He has been told he will be detained for three months, Mrs. Tariq said.

Mr. Ahsan, now in confinement at his house, where visitors beyond his family are forbidden, was also kept awake by bright lights in a jail in Rawalpindi, said his wife, Bushra Ahsan.

The number of police guards at Mr. Ahsan’s house in Lahore has been increased to 40, from 20, and jail officials sit at the three entrances to the house and control who goes in and out with locks they have installed on the doors, Ms. Ahsan said.

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