By-poll infractions point to dangers ahead: HRCP


Lahore, February 27: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed shock and alarm at the deviations from normal sensible behaviour that were witnessed during by-elections held in ten constituencies on Sunday.

A statement issued by HRCP on Monday said: “The events that took place during the by-elections have pointed to the dangers that can haunt us come the general election. These include preventing women from voting under agreement or otherwise, violence upon polling staff, unrestricted display of firearms and firing around polling booths and employment of police personnel for interference in legitimate balloting. All these events reported during this limited exercise must be thoroughly probed and no quarters given to any offender party, otherwise the dream of free and fair elections would forever remain elusive. The remedy lies not only with the Election Commission—although it has the first responsibility in the presence of abundant evidence of the infractions—but also with the government and the political parties and above all with the people who have to demonstrate responsibility and commitment to the democratic principle rather than to petty interests or clan loyalty.”

Zohra Yusuf


HRCP has deep concern at Sindh University situation

Lahore, February 9: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has strongly condemned the recent developments atSindh University where, following the killing of Professor Bashir Channar on January 2, unjustified action has been taken against protesting teachers.

A statement issued by the Commission on Thursday said: “HRCP notes with alarm that the services of two representatives of Sindh University Teachers’ Association, Dr. Arfana Mallah and Dr. Azhar Ali Shah, have been terminated and show-cause notices issued to other teachers. The university had only reopened a few days ago on the assurance of the Sindh Governor that the vice-chancellor of Sindh University, who is past the age of retirement, would be replaced in accordance with the demands of the teachers.

“HRCP also has serious reservations over the authorities’ apathetic approach towards acknowledging and addressing teachers’ concerns. It defies reason why the teachers must protests for weeks upon weeks before their concerns register on the official radar. The teachers have protested long and in a peaceful manner for demands that are not unreasonable: a judicial probe into the assassination of Professor Bashir, withdrawal of police and Rangers from the campus, restoration of student unions and removal of the vice chancellor.

“It is regrettable that Sindh University and most other universities in the province are headed by academics who have crossed the retirement age. In a recent meeting with the HRCP vice-chairperson for Sindh and members of HRCP Council, the Sindh Governor had agreed to look into the issues concerning the Sindh University. HRCP calls upon the Governor, in his capacity as chancellor of Sindh University, to rescind the decisions regarding the dismissal and issuance of show-cause notices to teachers and take effective steps to fulfil the government’s obligation to ensure an atmosphere free from intimidation and conducive for academic progress at the university.”

 Zohra Yusuf


Deaths in building collapse expose travesties galore: HRCP

 Lahore, February 8: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed alarm and incredulity at the shoddy state of affairs that led to the tragic death of nearly two dozen people in Lahore when a boiler explosion reportedly brought down a three-storey ‘pharmaceutical laboratory’.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Commission said: “Our heart goes out to the families of the poor workers killed in the collapse of a so-called pharmaceutical laboratory building in Lahore on Monday. The disaster has exposed the utter non-existence of any regulatory system, which is as horrific as it is incredible. We now learn that the factory was operating without a licence and in a residential area, that most of the workers were women and very young children employed in clearly exploitative conditions, that the establishment had not been assessed for environmental impact and the premises had not been inspected because the provincial government have abolished labour inspectors’ visits to factories since 2002. The banning of labour inspection is a travesty that amounts to the government’s acquiescence into industrialists’ greedy operations above all else. How such an indefensible policy continues to prevail says something about the persuasive power of big business.

“If such appalling exploitation and illegalities go on unnoticed and unchecked in the country’s second largest city, it should not be too difficult for anyone, including the rulers, to imagine how bad things must be in places that are not quite so close to the seat of government or are not as well covered by the media. Those in power must realise that the people have entirely reasonable and exceedingly diminishing expectations of the government safeguarding their interest. They must preempt such tragedies rather than reacting with posthumous compensation packages and rhetoric. There is plenty of blame to go around and fixing such a broken system would take some doing. For the workers at the factory in Lahore it is too late but for the sake of countless others who continue to work in similar and worse conditions, it is hoped and demanded that the government shows some imagination and spine to put a stop to the policies that make a mockery of the people’s rights and precipitate such disasters.”

Zohra Yusuf

HRCP’s concern at killing of Sibi protesters

Lahore, February 6: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed serious concern at the death of two men in Sibi on Saturday when security forces personnel opened fire on demonstrators protesting against the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti’s kin inKarachi last week.

The Commission said in a statement: “HRCP regrets very much the deaths and injuries among demonstrators in Sibi when FC personnel opened fire on them. Media reports suggest that around 300 people had blocked the National Highway to protest the killings and had prevented an FC convoy from passing through.

“Such use of force plays into the hands of those who want the situation to aggravate in the province, if further aggravation is possible. HRCP reiterates the people’s right to peaceful protest and emphasises that the authorities must exhaust all possible options before resorting to the use of lethal force and only do that to prevent violence and bloodshed that cannot be prevented otherwise. Furthermore, in view of the charged environment in the province these things must not be seen as mere law and order issues. HRCP welcomes the government’s decision to hold a judicial probe and very much hopes that unlike earlier probes the findings of this one would be made public.”

 Zohra Yusuf

Four years on…

Benazir Bhutto on her arrival in Karachi in Oct, 2007. Photo: Beena Sarwar

It’s four years since those pistol shots and bomb blast in Pindi’s Liaquat Bagh ended the life of Pakistan’s most promising politician and hope for democracy. There is no one to replace Benazir Bhutto but her legacy lives on in many ways. This is the first legitimately elected government ever in Pakistan to remain in office for as long as it has – and it will be the first to complete its tenure if allowed to do so and hand over power to the next elected government. This political process is essential to move Pakistan out of a quagmire that has taken decades to push us into. There are no quick fixes, no magic wands that can change things overnight. What’s important is the process and at least that is under way – thanks to Benazir Bhutto.

Thanks to YouTube, archival footage is now available to remind us of her legacy.In his moving article on Benazir, Saroop Ijaz refers to this interview of her’s soon after Gen. Zia’s death, in which she outlines her political vision of looking ahead, without vindictiveness. He begins the piece with lines that Benazir Bhutto recited, quoting from Dr Khalid Javed Jan’s iconic poem on her return to Pakistan in 1986: “Mazhab kay jo byopairi hainwoh sab se baree bemaari hain…. In jhute or makkaron semahzab kay thekedaron saymein baaghi hoonmein baaghi hoon” (The traders of religion are the worst disease, I rebel from these liars and hypocrites).

Complete lyrics at this link.

Cameraman Arif Khan (seated 1st right) was one of those killed at the bomb blast at Karsaz. Photo: courtesy Asadullah Khan

When Benazir arrived in Pakistan in October 2007, the air of anticipation was infectious. I ended up riding out to the airport on the back of a motorbike, passing hordes of celebrating people (see my cell phone photos) and pushing my way through a huge mob, past her ‘janesars’, to the top of her truck with my colleague Absar Alam who interviewed her for Geo TV (thanks to Naheed Khan who invited us up top). This was just hours before the bomb blast that killed over 180 people and injured scores of others, including Benazir, as her convoy passed Karsaz Road in Karachi.

The next morning to everyone’s astonishment, despite her own trauma (ears oozing blood from the bomb blast), she breached security protocols to visit the injured in hospital, and by afternoon was patiently presiding over a chaotic press conference at Bilawal House. The place was ill equipped to deal with the explosion of TV channels that had taken place over the past few years. At one point, our eyes met and she smiled in recognition of the absurd situation.

Barely two months later she was dead – literally having paid with her life for democracy. I was in Lahore then. As we mourned together, Hina Jillani’s observation on how much Benazir had changed during her years of exile has stayed with me. She looked different, positively radiant, with a simple plait replacing the old bouffant hairdo, no heavy make-up, her by now trademark white dupatta draped over her head rather than the earlier matching shawls and jackets with padded shoulders. She was no longer arrogant, she listened, she was willing to learn.

Benazir Bhutto giving her first interview to a Pakistani journalist on her return in Oct, 2007. Photo: Beena Sarwar

But she remained consistent in her adherence to peaceful, non-violent, constitutional means to bring democracy back to Pakistan. This was clear even in the early years when she campaigned around the world against Gen. Zia’s military regime and came across enthusiastic young turks talked of revolution or fighting the army regime with guns. Her fighting spirit remained evident in her insistence on contesting elections under the Musharraf regime (as she did during the Zia years), even as many progressive liberals urged her to boycott. Her answer: “Boycott, and then what?”

She prevailed upon her former arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, who was dithering on the boycott issue, to agree to contest elections. Imran Khan in his wisdom, stayed out of the fray and in the political wilderness (until suddenly being projected into prominence earlier this year).

To those who tried to push her into supporting the individual over the institution (with reference to the restoration of the judiciary), Benazir wrote: “I remain committed to the freedom and vitality of democracy as the great Quaid-e-Awam had dreamt of. Yes, it is true that you have to deal sometimes with the devil if you can’t face it but everything is a means to an end. I have great respect and admiration for the Judiciary both bench and bar. I have great respect for individuals both present and ex. Ultimately, however, it is the institution that has to decide collectively what course to take. I hope this clarifies my viewpoint.” (Dec 3, 2007)

The devil of course was Musharraf and the deal was the much-maligned National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) without which she and other politicians could not have returned to Pakistan to participate in politics.

Lawyers’ movement: PPP and ANP workers took the heaviest casualties on May 12, 2007 in Karachi. HRCP report:

As Marvi Sirmed writes in her heartfelt personal tribute remembering Benazir today, being a woman never hindered her,

“so much so that when the forces opposing her tried to use her biology against her, she turned it around. When she was expecting Bilawal, they announced elections around the dates they thought she would be in maternity. I cannot forget her coming to the political rallies with her intravenous drip in her hands… When she was expecting Bakhtawar during her premiership, the crisis was once again carefully chosen to coincide with the dates of her delivery. She did not make herself absent from her office for more than 48 hours.

“All through her political life, she struggled against the hegemony of the oppressive deep state that used every jape that they could, and from right-wing rhetoric that was nauseatingly misogynist and anti-people.”

Despite the hurdles, despite being always under siege – “We were in government but not in power” – she would say – she achieved much. Her son Bilawal lists some of these accomplishments in his tributeto his mother.

Benazir Bhutto with her children visiting Asif Zardari in prison. Photo: Larkana Times

What we do know is that there are 86,000 more schools because of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. That, under her government foreign investment quadrupled; energy production doubled; exports boomed. Under her government, 100,000 female health workers fanned out across the country, bringing health care, nutrition, pre and postnatal care, to millions of our poorest citizens. It was under her government that women were admitted as judges to the nation’s courts, that women’s police departments were established to help women who suffered from domestic violence and a women’s bank was established to give micro loans to women to start small businesses. It was under Shaheed Benazir Bhutto’s leadership that cell phones, fibre optics and international media were introduced, and the Pakistani software industry blossomed. And it was on her very first day as prime minister, that all political prisoners were freed, unions legalised and the press uncensored. It was an amazing record of accomplishment, made even more remarkable by the constraint of aborted tenures, by constant pressure from a hostile establishment and presidents with the power to sack elected governments.”

The hostile establishment remains hostile but the President no longer has the power to sack an elected government. This is one of the current elected government’s several achievements that tend to get overshadowed by the explosive (no pun intended) situation around. Other achievements include the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan Package, increase of minimum wages from Rs 4,600 to Rs 7,000 a month, political rights to Gilgit-Baltistan, extension of the Political Parties Act to FATA, bills for women’s rights and empowerment, the 18th and 19th constitutional amendments (that include getting rid of Zia’s clause that allowed the President to dissolve Parliament), the combined NFC Award (moving towards provincial autonomy), signing Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline agreement despite American opposition, forcing the Americans to tie aid to Pakistan to the continuation of democracy with the ‘Kerry-Lugar Bill’ (another reason the military hates this government), kicking out the Saudi ambassador for distributing money to terrorists, expanding the Lady Health Workers programme (initiated by Benazir Bhutto), and continuing her legacy of non-vindictiveness towards political rivals and dissent. It should be a matter of pride for Pakistan that this government has not carried out any capital punishments, in line with its unofficial moratorium on executions.

The political situation remains volatile. But there are many positives to build upon. Things will not change overnight, but the process is underway. Despite the apparent unpopularity of the present government, theare is a difference this time round, given that efforts are being made to take preemptive steps to mobilise politically (for example, the Citizens’ statement on the ‘Memogate’ issue) against unconstitutional moves to topple the government. Perhaps some lessons have been learnt from the past.