TOPICS > Politics

Pakistani Crisis Persists as Activists Confront Military Government

November 19, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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A newly appointed Pakistani Supreme Court quashed several legal challenges to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's re-election Monday. Margaret Warner reports from Lahore, Pakistan, on how the conflict between activists and Musharraf's military government has impacted the country's civil society and fuels the political crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: After 13 days under house arrest, Asma Jahangir is once again free to speak out. The chairperson of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission wasted no time this weekend returning to the fray.

Hours after the detention order against her was lifted, the diminutive 55-year-old chaired a news conference at the Lahore Press Club, calling President Musharraf a “fascist” who has “shown his true colors.”

ASMA JAHANGIR, Chair, Pakistan Human Rights Commission: He actually believes without him Pakistan will crumble. I think if he stays, Pakistan may crumble. I hope not.

MARGARET WARNER: Then she joined scores of journalists in a demonstration against the media crackdown that’s part of Musharraf’s 16-day-old state of emergency.

Over the weekend, two of Pakistan’s most popular TV channels had their transmission facilities shut down. Jahangir is heartened to see journalists now joining the lawyers, political activists, and human rights advocates like herself in fighting Musharraf’s campaign against them.

ASMA JAHANGIR: Musharraf really wants to destroy not only civil institutions like the judiciary, like he has silenced a lot of civil society groups, but wants to kill the spirit of civil society. So he wants absolute silence and absolute obedience from the people of Pakistan, but I think people have had enough. And nobody, not even violence can stand in the way of people’s aspirations for too long.

MARGARET WARNER: From the offices of the Human Rights Commission in Lahore, Jahangir has doggedly fought for women’s rights and represented Pakistanis who claim their relatives have disappeared, been tortured, or killed at the hands of the country’s powerful military intelligence apparatus.

The day Musharraf declared a state of emergency, Jahangir found herself under house arrest, though not in prison, as thousands of other lawyers and activists were. Police surrounded her house, confined her inside, and shooed away journalists who sought her comments. She was released last Friday.

Today, free and unbowed, Jahangir says the detention of thousands of lawyers like herself has only further undermined the government’s anti-terrorist campaign that Musharraf insists martial law was invoked to advance.

ASMA JAHANGIR: The impact of arresting leaders of civil society is that courts are not working. The administration is not doing its normal work, but only rounding up lawyers, judges and journalists, or human rights activists.

So there is a kind of a dysfunctional state at the moment. And it really is beginning to show, because those elements in society who are criminals, who are militants are taking advantage of it, and Musharraf seems quite helpless, in a way, quite incompetent to deal with them.

One family's plight

Qaisar Walli
Detainee's son
We can't see any hope, any ray of hope, and we are just blind at the moment and we don't know what to do. We can't meet our father, and we cannot go anywhere for some justice.

MARGARET WARNER: The state of emergency has struck hard at the heart of one family in Lahore. Fifty-five-year-old attorney Walli Mohammed Khan took a leading role in anti-government protests last spring, when President Musharraf suspended the country's chief justice.

When Khan took to the streets again this month to protest the state of emergency, he was beaten about the head, hospitalized, and after a foreign news agency tried to interview him, carted off to prison.

Today he's in jail, 300 miles from home. His family has been refused all access to him.

His 22 year-old daughter Naila and 21-year-old son Qaisar say they've begged authorities to let them bring their father his post-heart attack medication, but to no avail.

QAISAR WALLI, Detainee's Son: We can't see any hope, any ray of hope, and we are just blind at the moment and we don't know what to do. We can't meet our father, and we cannot go anywhere for some justice.

MARGARET WARNER: They say their father was targeted after repeatedly refusing to resign from an opposition party and join President Musharraf's. And, they say, the pressure continues.

QAISAR WALLI: We are still receiving some unknown calls from some intelligence men, like they are threatening us. "Ask your father to join Muslim League, government's Muslim League," but we're not willing to join them.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean now, even now, while your father is in prison, the intelligence services are threatening you?

QAISAR WALLI: Yes, yes, they are calling us from some unknown numbers, some like private numbers, and we are still receiving, threatened that we will do many bad things with your father. Just convince him to join Musharraf.

MARGARET WARNER: Helping this family develop a legal strategy to free their father is another Lahore attorney, Mian Khalid Mahmood. He says he's under a detention warrant, too, for his part in the lawyers' movement, so he stays on the run, trying to avoid arrest and possible trial by a military court, something Musharraf's emergency decree allows.

MIAN KHALID MAHMOOD, Attorney: We are not terrorists, but they present us before the anti-terrorist courts. Our pen fight is against the gun.

MARGARET WARNER: Can the pen win against the gun?

MIAN KHALID MAHMOOD: Obviously. Obviously. All the international community -- you can watch it on  the net, on media, on print media -- all are with us.

Government and opposition views

Chaudhry Pervez Elahi
Chief Minister, Punjab
To fight terrorism, we have to have discipline. And to have a discipline, we have to have some rules of the game and the media has to follow, everybody has to follow.

MARGARET WARNER: But if civil society advocates are confident the tide of history is moving their way, backers of President Musharraf are just as confident it is not.

Chaudhry Pervez Elahi has been the chief minister of Punjab for the past five years, governing a province with 55 percent of Pakistan's entire population. This Musharraf loyalist said the state of emergency was absolutely needed to rein in a judicial system he said had been coddling terrorist suspects.

CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI, Chief Minister, Punjab: To fight terrorism, we have to have discipline. And to have a discipline, we have to have some rules of the game and the media has to follow, everybody has to follow.

MARGARET WARNER: The minister insisted last night that 80 percent of the lawyers arrested have already been released and that only "troublemakers" who organized protests remained in prison.

What was wrong with organizing lawyers' protests?

CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI: To disturb the functioning of the courts is objectionable. And the people who are creating troubles in the courts, we have to stop them.

MARGARET WARNER: Elahi is now campaigning for re-election and, he hopes, a bid at being Pakistan's prime minister, if the ruling party prevails.

Politicians from Musharraf's party, like the chief minister whose image is plastered all over Lahore, seem confident of their chances in the upcoming legislative elections, even, or perhaps especially, if they're held under emergency rule.

So the opposition parties now face a dilemma: whether to take part in those elections and even resume power-sharing talks with Musharraf in the meantime or adopt the more confrontational stance the civil society activists have urged.

Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party, is wrestling with that decision right now. In an interview with the NewsHour on Friday, shortly after being released from house arrest, she acknowledged that her own doubts about Musharraf have been compounded by the political pressure she's under from activists who want her to abandon all efforts to reach a political accommodation with him.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Former Pakistani Prime Minister: On one side is the distrust I have of any promise made by General Musharraf at the moment. And the second is the distrust that all the other political parties, the leading civil groups, the women's groups, young students have.

I'm asking myself, could I convince the people in my party who were killed, the people in my party who were imprisoned, who were prepared in the past to back my dialogue, that I'm going back to the person who arrested them? And, sadly, the answer is no.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, there were signs that Musharraf's de facto martial law is radicalizing more segments of society. Students at Lahore's Punjab University mounted a mid-day demonstration against the role Islamist students there had played in last week's arrest on campus of a prominent opposition leader.

Among them was law student Rab Nawaz, who's outraged at Musharraf for attacking the profession he's training for.

RAB NAWAZ, Law Student: I don't accept him as my president, personally. And he's a dictator, and he's not following the law, and he has dismissed our judiciary.

MARGARET WARNER: Nawaz predicted that if the emergency remains in force student protests could grow.

RAB NAWAZ: We can suppose and we can hope that students will participate very actively and they'll move that movement across Pakistan.

For many, life as usual

Asma Jahangir
Chair, Pakistan Human Rights Commission
In any country where there has been dictatorship for decades, it is very difficult for ordinary people to take the risk of coming to the streets. There is no freedom of association here, and people are afraid.

MARGARET WARNER: But while activists have been taking to the streets, the vast majority of Pakistanis have not. This weekend, the historic old town of Lahore was teeming with normal street life. The roads were clogged with traffic and pollution, and merchants were open for business.

Laborer Mohammed Shafik was driving a cartload of drainage pipes through the streets. Any question about the state of emergency he answered with reference to his meager pocketbook.

MOHAMMED SHAFIK, Laborer (through translator): We haven't benefited from this emergency. There has been no benefit. We earn just 200 to 400 rupees a day, so what's the use of it?

MARGARET WARNER: Even the most ardent activists say they understand why their protests haven't become a mass movement so far.

ASMA JAHANGIR: I think that, in any country where there has been dictatorship for decades, it is very difficult for ordinary people to take the risk of coming to the streets. There is no freedom of association here, and people are afraid.

NAJAM SETHI, Editor, The Daily Times: This is the birth of civil society. It's not the climactic position of civil society.

MARGARET WARNER: Najam Sethi, editor of Lahore's Daily Times newspaper, is one of the country's leading political analysts. He says that Pakistan's young civil society movement, which owes much of its flowering to freedoms introduced by Musharraf, can't generate Musharraf's ouster on its own. The activist community needs the political parties for that, he says, and at present they're not on the same page.

NAJAM SETHI: I think right now what you see is civil society is putting pressure on political parties to adopt its agenda, which is no talks with Musharraf, one last heave, and off he goes, and then, you know, let's get back into democracy, whereas Benazir Bhutto and many others are saying, hey, that may not be the best way to go. That may provoke another martial law.

MARGARET WARNER: Those calculations seem very far away from barber Mohammed Bashir, who's been cutting and shaving hair beneath the branches of the same shady tree for the last 50 years. In his open-air barber shop, all talk of politics has long been banned.

MOHAMMED BASHIR, Barber (through translator): I absolutely don't permit any discussion on politics, absolutely not at all, because we are all afraid.

MARGARET WARNER: When we asked him if civilian politicians or the military could improve over what Musharraf has delivered, he simply pointed at the sky. "Only God," he said, "can change our condition." His customers all agreed.

Musharraf still in control

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
It's fairly clear, I think here, that President Musharraf has not only the power of the state and the power of the security forces, he still has the political initiative here.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez also talked to Margaret about the latest political developments.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, welcome.

Let's start with the Supreme Court decision. What does it specify? And does it mark the end of the legal wrangling over the upcoming elections?

MARGARET WARNER: It doesn't mark the very end of it, but close to the end, Ray. Two things have to be noted about today's hearing. First of all, this was now a hand-picked replacement court by Musharraf.

Secondly, Pakistani reporters who were present say one reason the five cases ended so quickly was that none of the lead lawyers challenging Musharraf's re-election were even present. Most are still in detention, and at least one was said to have boycotted.

As for what it means, one Musharraf aide told me this evening that if and when the court finally rules on the final challenge -- and the hearing's expected Thursday -- that Musharraf will move very quickly to do what he pledged to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on Saturday he would do, which is take off his uniform, that is resign his position as army chief of staff, and get sworn in for a new term of president as a civilian.

Now, Bhutto advisers don't think he'll do any such thing. They believe he will continue to cling to the uniform, at least until the elections, just in case the new parliament proves troublesome.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned that General Musharraf got what he wanted in the form of the court's decision. Where does this leave Benazir Bhutto and other opposition forces?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they face the dilemma that I sketched out in the piece. That is, if this election commission sets January 8th as election day, which Musharraf has requested it to do, they have a huge choice.

I mean, do they sit it out entirely and thus deny him and the whole process any legitimacy here in Pakistan or internationally, but also allow him and his party to just cement their control, or do they get in there and fight for representation, whatever the ground rules, and hope that they can clip his wings as president once the new parliament takes office?

One thing Bhutto advisers -- they told me two things tonight, first of all, that she has not decided and the other opposition leaders have not decided, but one thing she wants to be sure of is that whatever they decide they do as one, all the opposition parties.

But it's fairly clear, I think here, that President Musharraf has not only the power of the state and the power of the security forces, he still has the political initiative here.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Margaret, I understand there's some updated information since you filed your report?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Ray. The young man in our piece whose father is in prison did drive six hours today to the prison where his father is, did manage to see him and get him his heart medication, but the father remains in jail. And the civil rights community here insists that, despite what the chief minister told us last night, that many thousands of people still remain detained.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner in Pakistan, good to talk to you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Great talking to you, Ray.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret will be reporting from Pakistan all week. On our Web site, you can pose questions about the political turmoil to two Pakistan watchers, Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations and Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute. Also online, you can see all of Margaret's interview with Benazir Bhutto. It's all at