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PAKISTAN: Interview with leading activist on Human Rights Day

PESHAWAR, 10 December 2003 (IRIN) - Human rights in Pakistan has not fared well since General Pervez Musharraf seized control of the government in a bloodless coup on 12 October 1999. There has been little improvement in the plight of the country's impoverished population of 140 million. Civil society remains weak and opposition to military rule is quickly stifled.

As the world celebrates Human Rights Day on Wednesday, IRIN interviewed Afrasiab Khattak, one of the country's most outspoken activists in his office in Perhawar, provincial capital of North West Frontier province (NWFP). The articulate former chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), and now senior leader of the opposition Awari National Party (ANP), painted a bleak picture of rights in Musharraf's Pakistan.

QUESTION: It's been four years since General Pervez Musharraf seized power. What impact has that had on the state of human rights in Pakistan today?

ANSWER: Like military governments in the past, rule by the army in Pakistan has delayed the country from its constitutional path. We are heading in a direction that is creating more and more distortions and deformations in our civilian institutions, particularly those that defend human rights. Judicially it [Pakistan] is very weak and has a very low prestige, not only in the eyes of lawyers and the legal community, but also in the eyes of the general public. In the same manner, the military generals have violated great aspects of the constitution and have used their political power. This so-called civilian government does not have power to rule the country. The real power still lies with the generals.

Violence against women has risen. There have been more cases of violence against women during this year than in the past years. Poverty has increased and the brunt of this development has been taken by the weaker sectors of society. That is women, children and disadvantaged people. We have more children on the streets. Begging is on the rise, and the government has in many cases, not only tortured people in custody, police atrocities have increased. A new police law has left them [the police] unaccountable before anyone. This so-called new police system has brought a sort of change for the worse. And there are no enquires into the cases of those officials who violate human rights. They are not accountable.

Q: If you were asked to summarise the state of human rights in Pakistan in one word, what would you say?

A: It [Pakistan] is a country without a constitution and a country without human rights.

Q: Recently there were hundreds of Afghans who were arrested and deported on the charges of being terrorists. How do you view this event?

A: Our police everywhere mistreat Afghan refugees, but the Islamabad [Pakistani capital] police are notorious for such behavior. Afghan refugees are never provided with due process of law. They are denied these rights, not produced before any court and they are deported by force. But as I said, the complaints against the Islamabad police are very strong. After the tripartite agreement about Afghan refugees between the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR [the Office for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees], there is no justification for arresting Afghans under this Foreigners Act that requires foreign aliens to have proper documents or be subject to arrest. Although recognised as refugees as a group, they are being harassed for not carrying proper documents, which are not provided to them.

Q: What about the issue of torture? There have been reports that political opponents, critical journalists and former government officials are on the receiving end of this. Is this issue on the rise?

A: Yes. We have seven cases of parliamentarians from the Punjab belonging to the Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League being tortured, a member of parliament from Faisalabad was tortured and beaten, journalists were also tortured. But this government is more sophisticated in using these methods. They gradually create an atmosphere of fear, which in turn forces some people [journalists] to self-censorship. A method of terror that keeps political workers or activists to keep their mouths shut. They use these tactics in a very sophisticated way, and they also do arrest some people to make them an example.

Currently in prison now, Javed Hashma the leader of the main opposition alliance and a member of parliament was arrested from the parliament building. For several days his whereabouts were not known by anyone, including his relatives and he was kept incommunicado before being produced before a court.

Q: According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW), over the past four years there has been a rise in activity by extremists groups and an increase in sectarian killings in Pakistan. Why is that?

A: The government of Pakistan has got a very strange policy. On the one hand it cooperates with the United States in arresting some elements of Al Qaeda - particularly belonging to Arab countries - who are spotted by the American government or the government of Pakistan. But they have not muttered the political will to take on these Pakistani militant organisations, when these organizations have been banned twice, but these bans are very hollow. Senior officers arrest some people who are not really involved in the business of terror. They are intact. Not a single person has been demobilised, disarmed or sent for rehabilitation. I don't think the government is serious about dealing with the extremist Islamic militancy. That's why these people are still around. And they do indulge in violence and sectarian violence in particular.

Q: How would your describe the status of women in your country under Musharraf? Has there been any improvement?

A: The only thing that has improved has been the representation of women in the electoral bodies at local, district, provincial and central levels. That is a good change because we have been demanding an increase in representation and now they have a particular percentage in election parties.

Apart from that, however, there has been no effort at creating conditions, enabling women to play their role effectively in the social, political and economic life of the country. [And] as a result in the rise of women's rights, there is a new cultural climate being created which aims at creating conditions that really aim at segregation on a gender basis. The religious right is single mindedly pursuing the objective of segregating women from men.

Examples of this can been seen by attacks on separate education systems, exclusively female sports, the pictures of women are not being allowed on posters and billboards in the country's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Not only is this being done by the government, but also by vigilante action there - tearing apart billboards where they see a photo of women. Even during the festival of Eid [a celebration marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan], cards carrying a photo of women were declared obscene and banned in the NWFP. Women's rights have of course been affected by these developments.

Q: In the past, you have been highly critical of the government's road map to democracy and return to civilian rule. Where are we on this road? Has there been any significant change over the past year?

A: It is very interesting that General Musharraf used to claim that he was against a "sham" democracy, and that he would restore "real" democracy to Pakistan. We have seen his real democracy, where he has declared dozens of amendments over and above the parliament. And he insists on being the president, along with being the chief of army staff, and the judges are not allowed to take fresh oaths, which they must according to the mandatory provisions of the constitution. The army has declared it has restored the constitution from 23 March of this year. But the judges have not taken an oath, which is a mandatory thing.

You can see such violations of the constitution and the undemocratic practices undertaken by this government. The parliament is not discussing government policy. The parliament is formulating neither foreign nor internal policy. Resource allocation is still decided by the generals. They call the shots in determining allocation and priorities. It is the worst example of a "sham" democracy - even by Pakistani standards.

Q: Since 11 September, Pakistan has been viewed as a staunch ally of Washington in its so-called war on terror. How has this affected human rights in the country?

A: As I said, the government of Pakistan has collaborated with the government of the United States in arresting some Al-Qaeda fugitives. In most cases, the due process of law has not been observed. People have been extradited without the observation of legal procedures. And the government has also strengthened internal laws - making them more draconian - particularly when it comes to terrorist activities. The laws are further strengthened in the sense that the basic principle of jurist prudence, in which a man is considered innocent until proven guilty, has been totally rejected. The new law here says that it is for the accused person to prove himself innocent.

The policies adapted by the government have led to violations [of rights], but it is not only that. By joining the coalition against terror, the Pakistani generals have received support from western countries - particularly the United States. This had led to a promotion of the generals' rule. The rule by the generals is a problem. It is not a solution. Unfortunately, the western countries have not taken notice of this fact - that we are reaping today what was sowed by Zia-ul-Haq, the military despot - and our coming generations will be reaping what is sowed today.

Q: Although an activist, you have now joined mainstream politics. Why is that?

A: I joined a political party because I feel that political parties are very important for a strong civil society. In Pakistan, unfortunately, during the past 15 or 20 years, political parties were undermined, particularly by the military. Of course, political parties have had their own weaknesses also. The mainstream political parties that could be a challenge to the military, were sidelined, discriminated against and demolished by the army. I feel that if we don't have strong secular democratic and liberal political
parties, we can't have democracy; we can't have a strong civil society.

Although I remain affiliated with the HRCP, there are other capable people who can run it now. Some of us should be in secular and liberal political parties to strengthen them, in order to strengthen democracy in the country.

Themes: (IRIN) Human Rights



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