Hoping for a New Dawn in US-Pakistani Relations

By: Ayesha Ijaz Khan
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Whether or not Barack Obama makes it as the next President of the USA remains to be seen, but his slogan for change is resonating with Americans and non-Americans alike.  Drawing inspiration from his successive campaign wins, students in Pakistan are writing newspaper columns entitled ‘Yes We Can’.  If a freshman senator with a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya can run such a successful fight for the highest office in the land after the Bush administration had all but convinced the world that America stood for bigotry and narrow-mindedness, then perhaps the possibility of hope and breaking from the past does exist.

As March 9 approaches, the legal community in Pakistan has declared Black Flag Week to commemorate one year since President Musharraf first sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.  Musharraf had suddenly removed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on charges of corruption.  In reality, Chaudhry had decided against government interests in a privatization case set to benefit only the wealthiest in society, and shortly thereafter, taken up the ‘missing persons case’ following vociferous appeals from mothers, wives and sisters complaining against male family members having been abducted by intelligence agencies in the middle of the night and without due process in the name of fighting the ‘war against terror’.

Much to Musharraf’s dismay, the deposed Chief Justice, along with his brilliantly organized legal team, toured the country north-to-south and common people flocked to listen to articulate lawyers pressing the case for independence of the judiciary and the need for rule of law.  In spite of media blackouts and a violent showdown in Karachi on May 12 last year, when police confined Chaudhry and his legal team to the airport while thugs supported by Musharraf’s coalition partners unleashed a bloody crackdown on opposition forces, the resistance continued. 

On July 20, 2007, perhaps encouraged by the sentiment in the country, the Supreme Judicial Council absolved Chaudhry of the corruption charges and reinstated him as Chief Justice.  Although a terrible blow to Musharraf and his cronies, it was a resounding victory for the lawyers and the common person increasingly looking for justice and even-handedness.  Chaudhry did not disappoint as he decided a plethora of public interest cases in favour of those segments of society most likely trampled over, notably women and the economically disadvantaged.  But simultaneously, there were politically sensitive cases that had been brought to Chaudhry’s attention.  Deciding against Musharraf’s interests in invalidating the forced exile of opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, Chaudhry recused himself from hearing the case on Musharraf’s eligibility to run for President.

Nevertheless, before the Supreme Court could deliver its verdict, a shaky and increasingly rash Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3, 2007 and once again deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.  However, this time Chaudhry was not alone.  More than half of Pakistan’s superior judiciary was placed under house arrest, as were several key lawyers, including the entire legal team that had played a most pivotal role in reinstating Chaudhry earlier.  As human rights activists and civil society members were detained, beaten and arrested en masse, brutal media crackdowns also ensued.  But the peoples’ resolve only strengthened.

Word on the Pakistani street was that Condoleeza Rice had been consulted and had approved imposition of a two-week emergency, thereby tacitly authorizing the use of force against ordinary citizens of Pakistan.  The two weeks turned to six and while human rights organizations from across the globe and several American bar associations vehemently opposed the Musharraf regime’s brutality, the Bush administration remained cautious in their criticism, stressing only that elections take place and mincing no words in expressing their preference to continue to work with Musharraf in Pakistan.

When the country finally went to the polls on February 18, 2008, the Pakistani people categorically rejected Musharraf’s cronies and their coalition partners, voting into office the secular opposition.  Yet the Bush administration’s ambassadors continue to meet with the new political gainers, Ms. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, de facto leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, urging them to work with Musharraf as President.

This preference on the part of the Bush administration is in direct contravention of the wishes of the Pakistani people, who want to see Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif form a coalition with other smaller parties so that they can reinstate the deposed judges, curb the growing and increasingly ruthless terrorism that has gripped Pakistan over the last years and has been greatly exacerbated by Musharraf’s ill-formed policies, and temper the rampant inflation that has made life for the common person excruciatingly difficult.

None of these issues are easy to solve, except perhaps the judiciary issue, which the lawyers insist was an illegal and unconstitutional act taken by Musharraf and can be invalidated quite simply, as long as there is political will on the part of the newly-elected politicians.

If the requisite political will is not forthcoming, however, the legal community has warned of its determination to continue their boycott of the courts of the hand-picked stooge judges.  They are also planning a march on to the new Parliament to make their voices heard.  Student political groups which had been banned in the eighties by another military dictator are now beginning to re-group in smarter ways as the new generation battles for change.

Perhaps when the government changes in Washington in November, we can look forward to a new dawn in the relationship between Pakistan and the USA.  Musharraf will either be gone or be increasingly irrelevant by then.  With Obama potentially in the White House and elected representatives in Pakistan held accountable to civil society movements insistent on the formulation of an improved social contract and new era in participatory governance, we may be better placed to find a solution to the common enemy of terrorism. 

In order to accomplish this however, we must have a government in Washington that does not interfere in Pakistan’s domestic issues and uses its clout to benefit and better the lives of the common person as opposed to obstructing justice and supporting one man instead of looking for a partnership with a nation of 160 million largely rational and moderate groups.  Only then can we realistically find common ground against combating terrorism.  Only then can we expect Pakistanis to take ownership of eradicating the menace of extremism, instead of resenting fighting ‘America’s War’.   

Ayesha Ijaz Khan is a London-based lawyer and political commentator and can be contacted via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com


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