/ 18 November 2007

Musharraf widens his sphere of punishment

The bruises suffered by Hassan Tariq, a senior barrister in Sindh province, extend in large purple patches from his hip to his rib cage. According to his own account, he was beaten with ”a hard object” and kicked and punched by officers for refusing to chant slogans in favour of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf.

He was seized on 8 November, but it was five days later when police brought him to the hospital in Nawabshah where doctors found that he had fractured ribs and internal bleeding to his lungs. After the operation to clear his lungs, he discovered the police who had been stationed outside his door had fled, leaving him a free man.

Tariq was fortunate. Thousands more members of civil society and the opposition remain in jail, under house arrest or simply unaccounted for in a crisis that claimed its first deaths last week, in a Karachi protest. The trouble escalated this weekend as United States Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte held talks with Musharraf to urge him to lift the emergency rule declared on 3 November.

Negroponte spoke to Musharraf’s political rival, Benazir Bhutto, in the hope of persuading the two to resume talks on power sharing and a transition to democracy. His visit was being seen as a last chance to prevent wider turmoil.

Two weeks into the crisis that began when Musharraf purged the judiciary, muzzled the media and clamped down on politicians who opposed his re-election, the full details of what the ”state of emergency” entails are emerging as human rights groups in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore collect testimonies.

Retribution is being meted out on a massive scale and Pakistan’s powerful gossip mill has attributed a particular motive to Musharraf’s thinking — his aim is to ”teach a lesson” to those who have dared object to his belief that only he can save his country. The aim of the state of emergency has been largely to humiliate the opposition.

Mahrouf Sultan, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan — whose most prominent member Asma Jahangir was under house arrest in Lahore until Friday — described what is emerging as a typical experience of human rights activists.

”On 5 November, at 1am, around 10 police surrounded my house and started banging on the door asking for me. My sons refused to let them inside and told them I would come out to meet them. They hurled abuse at us,” he said.

”The men said they were taking me to the police station for 15 to 20 minutes to meet a superintendent, but when I went outside five or six men grabbed me and drove me to the Gulbahar police station where I was locked up and given no food for 24 hours.”

The next day he was taken to Karachi’s central jail. ”Along with 300 other people, I was made to sit on my feet for 10 hours while we were filling our ‘entries’ as a form of punishment. We had to sit in the hot sun with no shade. They kept around 150 of us in one barracks meant to accommodate no more than 60 people.

”There were four toilets in the barracks, but no water. The stench was terrible. We didn’t even have water to wash ourselves before our prayers.”

Reports of humiliation and abuse are common from those who, because of age or good connections, have been let go or transferred to house arrest. Political activists have in effect been criminalised by being denied the legal ”class one status”, which offers better conditions of custody and segregation from those charged with criminal acts.

Those in custody are held under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act. The list of names in Lahore alone of those lawyers charged under the act runs to several dozen, and includes Sarfraz Ahmad Cheema, secretary of the Lahore High Court Bar.

Each day brings new names. On Wednesday it was Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician. On Thursday three of Khan’s sisters and four of his cousins were arrested in Lahore when they arranged a protest rally.

Charges are vague. Rafiq Ahmed, arrested with more than 50 other lawyers, said: ”We had no idea why we were detained… Our detention orders stated that they had apprehensions that we were involved in anti-state activities.”

Even those who have thus far avoided arrest are not immune to the threats.

Last week the Observer listened as a warning was delivered to a prominent civil society activist, who asked to remain anonymous A relative had been sent with a message from Pakistan’s intelligence organisation, the ISI, warning: ”Shut up or else.”

”Musharraf built up this idea of being a benevolent dictator,” says Farrukh Saleem, a columnist for the News. ”But now people are being beaten up. Ten, 20 years ago, when you went to these demonstrations it would be the party workers getting arrested. The people arrested now are the intelligentsia.”

After a year of being challenged in the courts, Musharraf has taken the laws being used to question to the legitimacy of his rule and refashioned them. As a result, many of those arrested have been charged under either the Anti-Terrorism Act or the provisions of the colonial-era Maintenance of Public Order Act.

Pakistan’s attorney general has hinted that the political activists might be freed as a concession to Negroponte’s visit but that the charges would remain on file.

”Musharraf is trying to cling on to power by beating and jailing an ever-growing number even of opposition activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ”His abuse of anti-terrorism laws in a desperate bid to hold on to power must end.” – Guardian Unlimited Â