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EFSAS Commentary

Civil society is thriving and well in Pakistan despite aggressive efforts by religious extremists and the military to silence it


As significant as what participants said at the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 was, and a lot of sensible and pertinent things were indeed said at the event held last weekend in Lahore, the fact that such an event could even be organized and attended by free-minded members of Pakistan’s civil society was what was truly remarkable about it. It proved that civil society in Pakistan has managed against all odds to keep itself afloat and hold its head high in spite of the tremendous and concerted pressure that has been exerted upon it by disparate quarters in the divided and dysfunctional State. At a time when accountability, civil freedoms, and trust in democratic institutions in Pakistan, as in other countries in South Asia, have come under grim dark clouds, it is civil society, as seen in all its glory over the two days on 20-21 November in Lahore, from which the checks and balances must emerge.

The conference was a very apt tribute to the towering personality in whose honour and memory it was held. A committed and courageous defender of human rights in a nation that has for long had among the worst records of violations in the world, Asma Jahangir’s credibility in, and impact on, Pakistani society were both substantial and laudable. Ahsan Bhoon, the President of the Bar Association of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, summed up Jahangir’s contribution fittingly when he said at the conference that “It takes just one person, one judge, and one journalist, one politician to stand up and challenge democratic infringements. That one person is feared by everyone who at any point even thinks of challenging the democratic system in the country. That person was Asma Jahangir. It will always be Asma. We are living in times where Asma’s vision is more relevant than ever before. The democratic system in the State of Pakistan is in turmoil, while freedom of media is facing bounds like never before. The judiciary is under immense pressure and the freedom of courts is being questioned like never before”.

The organisers of the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021, which included the Asma Jahangir Foundation, the Supreme Court Bar Association, and the Pakistan Bar Council, should take a lot of pride in the free flow of thoughts and ideas that they were able to encourage at the event. This is especially so given the unofficial and unconstitutional clampdown on free expression that has informally been imposed upon Pakistanis by the State and the deep State through intimidation, which includes arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings, and threats to those who dare to speak out against excesses and violations of rights by the State. The ‘othering’ of critics and opponents of all inclinations, even those of the peace-loving and principled kind, is manifest in their being labeled anti-nationals and traitors and being hounded and persecuted. Such severe consequences have, sadly, rendered the sort of discourse evidenced at the conference a rarity, something only the extremely brave and upright have had the courage to engage in. If for this reason alone, the conference was a raging success.

The theme chosen by the organisers for the 3rd Asma Jahangir Conference – Challenges to Human Dignity – not only fit in well with the times we live in, but it also reflected the narrative that the organisers wished to promote. In addition to important issues confronting Pakistan including the role of the State and the judiciary, the misuse of institutions of the State to target political and other opponents, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, curbs on freedom of expression, the impact of religious extremism, the violation of the rights of religious minorities and of children, and the precarious economic situation of the country, the conference also deliberated on developments in Pakistan’s neighbourhood, with the crisis in Afghanistan and its implications and the situation in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) being in focus.

The conference got off to a solid start with Justice Gulzar Ahmed, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, inaugurating it and along with several other senior judges and other legal luminaries participating in the inaugural session on ‘The Role of Judiciary in Protecting Human Rights and Strengthening Democracy’. The tone for the rest of the conference was set at this session in which a vibrant debate on the role and functioning of the judiciary took place with refreshing openness. The judiciary came under attack from Ali Ahmad Kurd, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), who in a fiery speech alleged that the Pakistani military establishment had been influencing the top judiciary. He said, “One General is dominating a country of 220 million people. This same General has sent the judiciary down to number 126” in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2021, on which Pakistan ranks 126th in the category of fundamental rights. Kurd received support from Justice Athar Minallah, the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court (IHC), who acknowledged that some of Kurd’s criticism was valid, and added that the judgments in cases such as the Nusrat Bhutto case and the Zafar Ali Shah case were part of history. The Supreme Court had justified the military takeover of Zia-ul Haq in 1977 in the Nusrat Bhutto case and that of Pervez Musharraf in 1999 in the Zafar Ali Shah case. Justice Minallah opined that “These judgments were responsible for the making and enabling of those that have been referred to by Mr Ali Ahmad Kurd”. He concluded that the judiciary should not “bury its head in the sand and ignore its mistakes”.

These allegations against the judiciary came close on the heels of a former Chief Justice of Gilgit-Baltistan saying in an affidavit that Pakistan’s former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar had pressured a judge of the IHC to deny bail to former premier Nawaz Sharif in 2018 until the general elections were over. The seriousness of the charges against the institution that he headed caused Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed to seek to refute them when his turn to speak came. Asserting that the judiciary was functioning independently and was not subjected to any interference, he added, “I have not taken pressure from any institution or listened to any institution. No one tells me or guides me on how to write my verdict. I have never made any decision that I did so on someone else’s saying, nor has anyone had the courage to say anything to me. We work and will continue to do so without pressure. There is rule of law in Pakistan, not human beings. We will continue to uphold the Constitution, law and democracy in the country. We will not accept any undemocratic set-up. We will resign from our posts (before succumbing to pressure) and we have done that before as well”. While Chief Justice Ahmed delivered his rebuttal with passion, and may indeed personally have been successful in warding off external pressure, especially from the military, any South Asia watcher would be well aware of the chequered track record of the Pakistani judiciary. The credibility of an institution is dependent on the level of trust it enjoys among citizens, and a reckoning with the past and a conscious and firm decision to not repeat earlier mistakes is what, maybe, is in order for Pakistan’s judiciary.

The trend of using investigative agencies of the Pakistani State to hound the political opposition received considerable attention at the conference, with the former Prime Minister and Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi asserting that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had become an institution of political engineering. He said, “It (NAB) is manipulating politics and it is punishing people without convicting them. I am all for accountability. NAB is not accountability. NAB is whatever it is”. He added, “two questions remain: what is the purpose of accountability and what has accountability delivered to the country”. He questioned why the people in charge of applying accountability laws were also insulated from them, and said, “Who does NAB apply to? The politicians, who are declared corrupt in the media, who are tried in the media? There’s been one consistency in all these laws — they don’t apply to the people who created these laws. That is the reality of NAB today”. Abbasi described the NAB law as one that defies every basic principle of justice, elaborating that the law essentially says “I declare you guilty, now prove your innocence”. Casting doubts over both the effectiveness of the NAB and the legal validity of its procedures, Abbasi asked the NAB chairman to come forth and reveal how much ill-gotten money he had recovered from politicians. He also asked the legal fraternity whether the two NAB cases that former PM and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif had been convicted in can be quoted as legal precedents anywhere in the world. Abbasi concluded that the anti-graft watchdog was now solely about “victimization”, the price of which was being borne by the people of the country.

The severe curbs on freedom of expression that have been imposed by the Pakistani State were strongly criticized in the sessions of the conference related to the right to dissent, censorship, and exclusion. Asma Jahangir’s daughter Munizae Jahangir, who was one of the organizers of the conference, said that the government of Pakistan was a signatory of United Nations (UN) resolutions regarding free media, right to speech and right to information, but in reality these rights were not given to the people. While claiming that in Pakistan, anyone who tried to speak for the rights of the people became susceptible to arbitrary arrests, threats, attacks, disappearance and even death, award winning journalist Amber Shamsi said that she was thankful that she was still alive and working. Senior journalists Hamid Mir and Absar Alam, both of whom have survived gun wounds inflicted by unknown assailants suspected to be linked to the military, participated in the conference and were living examples of what could befall anyone who dared question the military establishment and its many interests. “People of Pakistan are the real owners of this country and no one has the right to deny them their legitimate right to expression and right to information”, Alam said, while Mir emphasized that the suppression of journalists was bringing a bad name to the country. Another senior journalist Talat Hussain said that free media was the key to true democracy, and he advised that “we should not wait for a major crisis to occur before raising our voices”.

Other important internal issues were deliberated upon with a fair degree of candidness in the sessions of the conference relating to ‘Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances’, ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’, ‘Minorities under Threat – Forced conversions and Marriages’, ‘Impact of extremism on religious and sectarian Minorities’, ‘State of the Economy: Inequality in Income and Wealth in Pakistan’, among others. The sessions pertaining to Pakistan’s neighbours were equally interesting and stimulating.

In the session titled ‘Chaos in Afghanis­tan and Talking to Banned Organisations’ that was moderated by author Ahmed Rashid, former Pakistani Senator and prominent human rights activist Afrasiab Khattak underlined that the Taliban knew how to reward their commanders but not how to work for the people. Describing present-day Afghanistan as the only country without a law and a proper government system, he added that it was also the only country that could be called a fenced prison after Pakistan installed barbed wires on its western borders. Lamenting that Pakistan’s Afghan policy was being controlled by someone other than the Prime Minister, meaning thereby that the military had total ownership over it, Khattak stressed that Pakistan needed to stop supporting the Afghan Taliban if it wanted to defeat the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). He opined that the Afghan Taliban and the TTP were two sides of the same coin, and similarly the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and the TTP had the common agenda of “political Islam”, which made them allies. Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader and member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, Mohsin Dawar, was also of the view that Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban was a source of strength for outlawed outfits like the TTP and the TLP. Criticizing the Pakistan government’s decision to denying visas to Afghan invitees to the conference, Dawar accused it of being open to militants like the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Muttaqi, but not to real Afghans.

The session on ‘Conflict in Kashmir: bypassing Kashmiris’ was equally interesting, and the theme of the people of J&K not having enough say in their own affairs was a recurring one articulated by participants. Journalist Naila Altaf Kayani pointed out that Kashmir and Afghanistan were two different issues and should be seen as such. She added that Kashmiris had been bypassed on many occasions not only by external actors but also by local leaders, who gradually replaced the nomenclature ‘Azad Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir’ with the ‘Government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir’. Another senior journalist, Syed Iftikhar Gillani, emphasized that Kashmiris were being systemically disempowered. He said that old approaches needed to be reviewed and the so called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) should be brought into the conversation because it was time to strengthen the institutions and the people. He added that AJK’s domestic leadership needed to be brought forward, and a proactive approach must be adopted. Mohammad Rafiq Dar, the chief spokesperson of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), said that bilateralism had dented the Kashmir issue severely, while author Nasim Zehra felt that Pakistan lacked clarity on its India policy and decision-making on Kashmir was, consequently, weak.

The conference also had pertinent messages for the wider South Asian region. Speakers at different sessions drafted a charter asking South Asian nations to collectively tackle their common challenges and bring greater freedom, tolerance and justice to the whole region. South Asian governments must open dialogue with dissenting voices and dispense with coercive methods, the charter added.

The speech of Nawaz Sharif, relayed from London via video link during the closing ceremony of conference, added some extra spice to an already highly successful event. In his wide-ranging speech, Nawaz called for immediately devising a national agenda to pull Pakistan out of its current crises and take it on the path of democracy. He emphasized the need to “put our house in order”. He once again hit out at the military establishment and criticized its interference in judicial and government affairs, which he claimed had led to Pakistan’s “downfall”. Sharif pointed out that “The most dangerous aspect is the deepening disappointment and severe helplessness among the people. History is witness that when nations descend into the quagmire of despair, questions start to be raised about that nation’s survival”.

The fear that Nawaz Sharif’s participation in the conference set off in the military establishment was palpable from the fact that it decided to cut off broadband and mobile internet services soon after the former PM began speaking. This action was aptly described as a ‘childish tactic’ in a Dawn editorial. In a statement issued after the event, the organisers of the conference regretted what they termed “the State’s highhandedness” in blocking Nawaz’s speech. PM Imran Khan came out more openly with his apprehensions regarding Sharif than the establishment did. He said on 24 November that it was unfortunate that the Chief Justice of Pakistan and a “convict” had been invited to speak at the same event. Disregarding the findings of a survey by research company IPSOS Pakistan that as many as 87% of Pakistanis believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction, Imran Khan claimed that through rooting out corruption he would lead Pakistan to “become something that was beyond imagination”.

For well wishers of Pakistan who have long been accustomed to international headlines highlighting the country’s promotion of terrorism, its rampant religious extremism, and its economic mess, the conference would have come as heartening and hope-inspiring evidence that some sane voices that speak sense do still exist in the country, and that the Generals and the Mullahs were not the only ones that could influence the direction that the country would be best served to head in.