Pakistan’s prisoner of conscience By Kamal Siddiqi
The News, January 07, 2008
In the leafy suburb of Zaman Park in Lahore, is the house and office of Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and also a leading member of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Part of this house, where Aitzaz resides, has been declared a sub-jail and this is where Aitzaz Ahsan has been house for some months now. Policemen and men in civilian clothing belonging to our numerous “agencies” stand guard and watch each person coming in or leaving the office. No one can meet Aitzaz Ahsan. Those who visit the office are also regarded with suspicion.
Last week, his detention was extended further under government orders. Orders we cannot question or challenge. Attempts by foreign diplomats to meet Ahsan have failed. Local mortals cannot even dream to meet one of the country’s most respected politicians. The consequences may be dire. Constituents and political workers stand outside and plead. But there is no compromise on this. It seems that Aitzaz Ahsan has committed some grave error. But one can only wonder what really is the crime of this respected lawyer and politician. All phone lines to the house have been severed. Mobile phones belonging to the family have been cut off. First the restrictions applied to only Aitzaz Ahsan. Now they apply to almost all members of the family. Several cell phones have been jammed and SIMs made useless by the powers that be. Complaints made to the mobile phone companies have drawn a blank. They say they are not the ones doing the jamming, they say. Why is it that our powers that focus so much attention on the people they should be least interested in?
The restrictions on Aitzaz Ahsan and his family members increased further after the killing of Benazir Bhutto, Ahsan told an interviewer on a national TV channel that he feared for the future of Pakistan. Ahsan said that confidence-building measures needed to be taken by the centre and by Punjab to allay the fears and misgivings of the Sindhis. Since then, Ahsan has been disallowed to even come out on his house’s balcony for a bit of sun. At the time of Ms Bhutto’s assassination, Aitzaz Ahsan was also been tipped as playing an important role in the future set up of the Pakistan Peoples Party. However, that was not to be. To many it would seem that having one’s house declared a sub-jail is a good alternate to going to jail itself. It may be in some but the frustration of being denied the freedom of movement, a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution, is a horrible experience. Ask the family of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and families of his fellow judges. Their movement has been restricted for months. Children have missed school. The only outing they have is to the garden in the house. The pressure of being watched, restricted and monitored is intense. The whole family is put to test.
To be fair, Aitzaz Ahsan chose his own path. His fellow party men are free to move around the country. Most of them have assembled at Naudero where they went ahead and chose a new leader for the party. In all this Aitzaz Ahsan has been out in the cold. People speculated that Aitzaz’s future in the PPP had come to an end following his decision to go along with the lawyers. But this was not actually the case. Contrary to public perception, Aitzaz Ahsan remains an integral part of the PPP. The only reason he did not take a party ticket is because of his other hat as one of the leaders of the lawyer movement; he went along with the decision to boycott the elections. But relations with Ms Bhutto were cordial till the very end. Unlike what some people allege, Aitzaz Ahsan was offered a party ticket. He met with Ms Bhutto earlier last year when she was in Dubai. Ms Bhutto visited his house last year to express solidarity after he was picked up by the government. When Aitzaz was taken to Adiala Jail, Asif Zardari phoned to comfort the family. He said that his “old jail friends” would take care of the Aitzaz and make sure he was comfortable. When Aitzaz refused the party ticket, it was then offered to Bushra Aitzaz, his wife, and when it was discovered that she was ineligible on a technicality, there was talk of issuing it to Aitzaz’s daughter. But the political future of Aitzaz Ahsan is under a cloud because he has chosen a more challenging path.
It is the second hat of Aitzaz Ahsan that is causing him more trouble. It is ironic that the three reasons that Aitzaz Ahsan argued on in the Supreme Court were the three points that were specifically addressed in the PCO when emergency was declared. Aitzaz was also targeted specifically by goons when lawyers came out to protest the filing of nomination papers by the president. This frail man was roughed up for all to see. But the country remained silent.
This is not the first time Aitzaz Ahsan has fallen out of the good books of the establishment. In his first stint in government, allegations were cast that he gave valuable information to the Indians when he was interior minister. This was the same Aitzaz Ahsan who upset a near relative when as interior minister came to his relation’s wedding without any protocol. The relation said that he was disappointed, as he wanted to “show off” his links with the interior minister.
It is amazing how allegations stick in Pakistan while truth fades away. No one seems to have forgotten that Aitzaz was accused of handing over valuable information but few can remember who made that allegation and what was the follow up to it. Nothing was proven. In fact, when Aitzaz sued a parliamentarian for making this allegation, he ended up being awarded damages. But this fact has not deterred rumour mongers. Common sense would tell us that given that the Benazir government that took office in 1988 was given no power or authority, the chances of the interior minister having access to sensitive information was remote. But Aitzaz was eased out, so much was the speculation and campaigning against him. This did not change Aitzaz Ahsan. Despite all the odds, Aitzaz Ahsan has stood by his principles and what he believes to be right for Pakistan. Why are we forgetting this man and several like him from the legal fraternity who have made sacrifices in the greater interests of Pakistan? Why have we forgotten our men and women of principle? Why is it that as a nation we are still unsure of who our heroes are? Why is it that we end up with people of questionable credentials to lead us through?
One wonders who holds the real power in the caretaker set up and how many rules are being violated to accommodate them. Protocol continues to be accorded to the former CMs of Punjab and Sindh. It seems that the government has thrown in their lot with this group and they can do no wrong. But at what cost? Is there no accountability in government? The only accountability process that works the world over are general elections but we seem intent on making them questionable too.