Pakistan: In the Eyes of Human Rights Watch
The News, July 02, 2008: By Omar R Quraishi
KARACHI: The government’s planned constitutional package to ostensibly restore the superior judiciary should not exempt the military and the ISI from the rule of law, Human Rights Watch executive-director Kenneth Roth told The News in an interview here on Tuesday.
He also said foremost among the demands that the HRW would be making to the new government would be the immediate restoration of the deposed judges without any conditions. Responding to questions on the rights situation in Pakistan, Roth, a graduate of Yale and Brown universities and in charge of the New York-based HRW since 1993, said it would be all right if the constitutional package indemnified President Musharraf from the charge of treason but should not indemnify his actions as a military dictator since 1999.
He said the elected government had no control over the ISI and that it was one of the goals of his organisation to raise this matter — in the larger constitutional context — with the Pakistan government.
Talking at some length on the issue of government and parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, the former government prosecutor said like the ISI, the CIA in America was a major perpetrator of abuse and torture. He said intelligence agencies were always a problem in this sense but that this problem needed to be tackled effectively and that the best way to do this was to ensure rule of law for everyone. It was in this regard that he said that the constitutional reform package being talked about by the Pakistani government should not allow any exemptions to the intelligence agencies or the military, or else each time they indulge in abuses they would simply seek another indemnity.
“If you don’t do this, you send the message that no price is to be paid for torture,” Roth said. He said US Congress had recently passed a legislation to effectively force the CIA into using the same standard for interrogation as used now by the US military but President George W Bush had vetoed this — and the measure could not be made into a law because there were not enough votes in Congress to override a presidential veto.
On the issue of missing persons, Roth said the situation had not really improved. He said this was linked to the impunity enjoyed by intelligence agencies, especially the ISI, because in the absence of a law punishing such behaviour they had no qualms going around picking up citizens. He said a minority of the disappearances had to do with the US-led war on terror and that most were those who had dissented against the government policies, especially during the period when Gen Musharraf was in effective command.
On the death penalty issue, a topic which has been much debated of late in Pakistan following the prime minister’s recent decision to ask the president to commute to life the sentences of all those on death row, the HRW chief said his organisation would ask the Pakistani government to immediately announce a moratorium on the issue. He said it needed to be determined whether the initial decision was a permanent policy change or a one-off measure.
Asked to comment on the view by some that Islam allowed capital punishment, because of its ‘eye-for-an-eye’ provision in dealing with crimes, Roth said Islam does not insist on execution and that it was much more limited in its application of the death penalty compared to strictures of the government.
On the situation in Fata, Roth said there should be no lawless zones in the country and that it was the responsibility of the government to protect all its citizens. He said the current operation in the Khyber Agency, as he understood it, was a law-enforcement matter and that the HRW did not object to such security measures as long as there were no summary executions, torture or disappearances.
In response to a question about attacks inside Pakistan by US unmanned aircraft, Roth said it was Pakistan’s responsibility to ensure that militancy within its borders was contained and tackled. The HRW chief said there was a noticeable improvement in the rights situation in the country, particularly with regard to the press and the handling of protest demonstrations.
“Look at the way the new government handled the long march and compare that with the way the Musharraf-led government handled such things when people were being beaten and detained. There is a clear difference,” he said. The HRW chief said the situation had improved also because trade and student unions had been restored.
However, with regard to the policy on human rights in general, he said under the Musharraf government, Pakistan had played a ‘nefarious’ role, especially at the UN, where its representatives always stood up to defend ‘every two-bit’ dictator and undermined efforts to hold autocrats accountable for human rights abuses.
Clearly, the reason had to do with the fact that they represented a government that was led by a military dictator, he said. However, things had begun to change and now there seemed to be a policy shift. “We will ask the government to ensure that its foreign policies reflect the same values as its domestic policies.”
On the issue of controversial US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Roth said while a recent US Supreme Court ruling had decided that those being tried had the right to defend themselves before a court, the issue of how long such detainees could be kept incarcerated remained unresolved.
In response to a question, he said although both Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain agreed that Guantanamo needed to close down, they were unclear as to what its replacement should be. He said right-wingers in America may plan legislation in Congress which would allow the facility to be moved to the US mainland.
In response to a question about certain cases where those released from Guantanamo had returned to the militant fold, Roth said by the US government’s own admission, out of 500 or so people released from Guantanamo not more than 30 had engaged or partaken of activity described as militant and that such a low recidivism rate — of less than 10 per cent — was remarkable for any prison population anywhere in the world and could not be used as grounds to justify the existence of such a detention facility.