Persecution of NGOs in Pakistan

"Like a Damoclean Sword Hanging over Our Heads"

In Pakistan, thousands of opposition activists, human rights activists, and journalists have been arrested; many others have gone into hiding. Annette Meisters reports from Karachi

Unidentified Pakistani protesters flash victory signs from a police lock-up facility in Multan, 7 November 2007 (photo: AP)
A show of strength? For some observers, President Musharraf's crack down on protesters and the opposition is the first sign of desperation

​​They came once darkness had fallen. Musharraf had barely finished declaring a state of emergency when the squad cars pulled up in front of Saleem Zia's house. About a dozen policemen rushed onto his property, threatening staff and family members, only to leave again when the could not find Zia.

An hour and a half later they were back again, terrorising Zia's loved ones. Once again, they had to go away empty handed.

The opposition politician had left his house as soon as he heard that a state of emergency had been declared. Zia is head of the Muslim League in the province of Sindh, the opposition PML-N party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf's military coup in 1999.

Arrest is all part of the game

Zia knew exactly what dangers the new situation held for him: the outspoken politician has been arrested eight times since Musharraf seized power.

In order to avoid being arrested again, Saleem Zia has been hiding in different places since the state of emergency was declared. Mostly he stays with friends. The meeting with Zia was arranged by a common acquaintance and takes place in an inconspicuous real estate office. "It is not being arrested that's the problem," explains Zia.

"That's all part of the game when you work as an opposition activist under military rule. But we have to prepare the upcoming parliamentary elections and I have to be around for that." This is why, he says, the party asked him to take precautions.

Using full force against Supreme Court judges

Politicians from other opposition parties have also been arrested since emergency rule was declared, primarily those who, like Saleem Zia, practice in law.

Police and lawyers in Lahore, 5 November 2007 (photo: AP)
Legions of police clashed with lawyers Monday as security forces across Pakistan blockaded courts to quash protests against Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency

​​The arrests are a reaction to the protests and petitions against Musharraf's re-election as president that have been organised and carried out by both lawyers and judges over the past few months. These protests have cast a serious doubt on the general's grip on power. Emergency rule gives Musharraf's regime the opportunity to come down with full force on the country's lawyers and Supreme Court judges.

"These are the actions of a desperate man," says Zohra Yusuf, a leading human rights activist and member of the Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP). She believes that Musharraf's power base is crumbling rapidly and that his days at the helm of both the army and the state are numbered.

Her organisation has also been a target of police raids. On the day after the state of emergency was declared, police and paramilitary units stormed a meeting of the HRCP in Lahore. No less than 70 activists were led away and only released after two days in prison or in government guest houses. The chairwoman of the HRCP, Asma Jehangir, is still under house arrest.

Unwilling to risk further arrests

This is why Zohra Yusuf instructed her colleagues in Karachi to behave as inconspicuously as possible when criticising the regime. The group's top priority at present is to avoid any further arrests. "At the moment, it is quite simply too difficult to get people out again," she explains. "The lawyers who usually support us in our work are either behind bars themselves or are boycotting the courts in protest at emergency rule."

All in all, this means that critics of the regime have very little room to manoeuvre at all. The electronic media were the first to feel the pressure. Before the state of emergency was even declared, cable network operators cut off transmissions by private news channels. This meant that anyone who didn't own a satellite dish – i.e. the vast majority of Pakistanis – have been looking at blank screens ever since.

The channels have been told that they will only be allowed to broadcast again when they agree to state censorship and pledge not to run any negative reports about the army and its chief, Gen. Musharraf.

Warning shots against journalists

Nadeem Jamal of the English-language news channel "Dawn News" admits that the combination of this pressure and the journalists' arrests is seriously hampering reporting. "Even under normal conditions, we check that the facts in our reports are correct," stresses Jamal. "But now we've become even more careful and somehow it feels as if we've got a Damoclean sword hanging over our heads."

However, the issue of personal security is not the only one troubling journalists at the moment. Their work is made even more difficult by the fact that so many of their informants are at present either in prison or under house arrest. "This doesn't make our research work any easier," says Jamal.

The newspapers, on the other hand, continue to report as if none of these restrictions and obstacles existed. Despite the fact that they have been severely critical of Musharraf's approach, they are allowed to go on printing; probably because – thanks to a disastrous educational policy – half of the country's 160 million inhabitants are illiterate. According to estimates, only about 1.5 million Pakistanis read newspapers.

That being said, the first clear warnings have been issued to the press. Only a few days after the introduction of emergency rule, the police paid a visit to the editor of a Karachi-based newspaper that publishes in Urdu. Reports written by the paper's journalists were confiscated and the team was only permitted to print part of its newspaper.

These are the worst of times for human rights and freedom of speech in Pakistan.

Annette Meisters

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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