Monday, January 28, 2008

Musharraf begs for understanding

MEPs blast hollowness, hypocrisy of dictator-President

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup on October 12, 1999 after ousting the democratically-elected government of Nawaz Sharif, came to Brussels during his four-nation trip to Europe.

Among many of his arranged talks to whitewash his image in the run-up to national elections on February 18 in Pakistan, the former military dictator-turnedpresident faced the toughest challenge at the European Parliament, the only directly-elected European institution.

Addressing an amalgamation of European lawmakers from Foreign Affairs Committee and the Delegation for relations with South Asia, Musharraf faltered when Neena Gill, MEP, challenged him over the imprisonment of pro-democracy activists in Pakistan. Gill asked Musharraf how, in the light of his alleged commitment to free and fair elections, he could explain the imprisonment of leading members of Pakistan’s civil society with little justification. She questioned him particularly about the case of Atizaz Ahsan, President of the Supreme Bar Association of Pakistan, who has been kept under house arrest for several months.

Ahsan, a prominent advocate of democracy in Pakistan was arrested after he fought a successful legal battle to reinstate the Chief Justice Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was illegally swept from office by Musharraf.Gill demanded to know if Ahsan, and other imprisoned lawyers would be freed, allowed to re-enter an independent judicial system and campaign unhindered in the forthcoming elections.

Gill told journalists later, “President Musharraf was evasive when answering MEPs questions. He claimed Atizaz Ahsan is free to leave his home, but we were informed differently.”“Mr. Musharraf continues to reiterate his commitment to free, fair, transparent and, as he added during today’s debate, peaceful elections. Sadly, there is a lot of evidence, such as Mr. Ahsan’s imprisonment which suggests his actions do not reflect his words. It is the responsibility of the international community to put pressure on Mr. Musharraf to replace the current Electoral Commission with a truly autonomous body, and allow a free media and judiciary.”

Earlier, Musharraf told a gathering of European lawmakers, diplomats and a sprinkle of journalists, “Pakistan is not a banana republic,” trying to clear the alleged blood stains on his regime from the recent assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Foreign Affairs Committee Chair MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski asked the Pakistani President for his assessment of the upcoming elections while MEP Veronique De Keyser was of the opinion that there was “a danger for democracy” in the recent events leading up to these polls, especially the mass arrests of lawyers.

Echoing this, MEP Annemie Neyts demanded that “all political prisoners need to be released before the elections,” while South-East Asia Delegation Chair Robert Evans highlighted, “MEPs will want assurances that you’ll do all you can to ensure a free and fair election, especially with relation to media freedoms.”

Denying that Pakistan has political prisoners, President Musharraf said only people “arrested” are “for breaking the law.” Visibly moved, Musharraf said he had acted “in accordance with the law of Pakistan and its constitution” when he initiated steps to remove the Chief Justice from his post in November last year, whom he described as “politicised, inept, corrupt and nepotistic.”

Making journalists wonder about his words, Musharraf argued Pakistan’s media was as free as any Western country’s, and assured MEPs that the upcoming elections will be “free, fair, transparent and peaceful.”

His assertion came within weeks of demands of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) for the suspension of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which has stepped up its efforts to restrict the media since Musharraf imposed a six-week state of emergency in early November.

According to the IFJ, which represents more than half a million journalists in 120 countries, it is impossible for journalists to properly do their work and cover the February 18 elections in a free atmosphere unless the Government revokes the recent censoring of media laws.

IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said the formation of a press council is pointless until respect for media rights and press freedom is first enshrined in the law. “With the current situation being as it is in Pakistan, especially following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27, it is more important than ever that the media are free to carry out their professional duties and keep the public informed,” said Park.

Wondering about the motives behind Bhutto’s assassination, Jose Salafranca asked whether President Musharraf was in favour of an international investigation into the case, but the former military chief vehemently denied “all conspiracy theories concerning the involvement of the intelligence services or the government,” in Bhutto’s death.

Musharraf went to great lengths to explain how the Pakistani security had “performed its duties well” in protecting Bhutto while it was no one but Bhutto to blame as she came out of the bullet-proof vehicle provided by the government.He, however, accepted forensic help from Scotland Yard and reiterated that Pakistani investigators were capable of uncovering who had been behind the assassination.

Speaking on the oft-repeated remarks about Pakistan being “in the forefront of fighting terrorism and extremism,” the former military dictator pleaded to the gathered audience to “help us, instead of attacking us and criticising us.”

Rejecting claims by MEP Francis Wurtz that the “war on terrorism” was declared by US President George W Bush, Musharraf argued, “We are fighting this war for our own interest, not anyone else’s.”

Dismissing the accusations about money being siphoned off from Western aid of billions of Euro, meant to fight terrorism, Musharraf gave a mathematical calculation formula showing that most of the money went back to donors for services and logistics provided for the war on terror. He went on to say that he would like to ask US President Bush to keep US money so that these accusations are not labeled on his government.

Musharraf also met the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana as well as Belgium’s caretaker Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

On the sidelines, the anti- Musharraf Pakistani demonstrators representing Pakistani opposition parties gathered just a few kilometres away from the hotel where the Pakistani President was staying. Protestors held pictures of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and the leader of the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif. The demonstration was organised by three groups, the Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Tehirke Insaf( Movement of Justice).