September 21, 2007

Pakistan's Human Rights Record under Fire

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By Simon Marks
Lahore, Pakistan
20 September 2007

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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is under fire over his country's human rights record. Western and Pakistani human rights groups accuse the military ruler of tolerating abuses as Pakistan tries to combat the threat of terrorism. But senior figures within the Pakistani government say the country's intelligence agencies are doing what they need to do to overcome real threats. From Lahore, Simon Marks reports.

The dusty legal files are stacked to the ceiling of Asma Jahangir's office in Lahore. And each one tells a story about an ongoing battle to protect the rights of the individual in Pakistan.



Jahangir chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. It is an independent, non-governmental organization that seeks to protect women and children who have been raped and abused, families whose assets have been summarily expropriated and relatives of people who have disappeared after being taken into custody. "There are hundreds of people who have disappeared and we have gone to court with a list of something like 175 people who still remain disappeared out of which some were recovered, and 95 are still not there."

On that issue, Pakistan's Supreme Court has now intervened, ordering the government to produce and release dozens of people that Pakistan's intelligence services have denied ever holding.

But the Pakistani authorities are still accused of abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture, and unexplained deaths-in-custody.

Of particular concern to activists is the situation in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where the government is fighting a nationalist uprising. "Torture is just routine, and if you are not tortured you are really lucky and exceptional. The government acts with impunity. You go to Baluchistan and you will find out how many people have been killed, bombarded there, and the government continues to say that these are 'miscreants.'"

Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf's government says it is fighting a front-line role in the global war on terror. Taleban and al-Qaida forces have regrouped along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

And suicide bomb attacks -- like one earlier this month in Rawalpindi at the headquarters of the Pakistani Army -- have destabilized the country's towns and cities. It is against that background that Pakistani government ministers acknowledge the intelligence agencies sometime cut corners in a bid to safeguard the country.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed is Pakistan's Railways Minister, and a close aide to President Musharraf. "There are some cases of torture for investigations, to know the news and know the network and to enter into the network."


Sheikh Rashid Ahmed
And Ahmed says that is justified given the nature of the terrorist threat. "In my opinion, for such kind of people and things, you know you have to do something like this."
Human rights activists disagree, and in Lahore, attorney Asma Jahangir has recruited a new generation of paralegals. Each has a poster demanding an end to military rule in Pakistan -- the first step, they say, to advancing the cause of human rights in the country.

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