Eight weeks after the launching of the much-publicized crackdown against Islamic extremists, the Pakistani military government is in a quandary over how to proceed against thousands of workers of the now-banned religious groups rounded up in the nationwide swoop, especially in the absence of legally justifiable evidence that could implicate them as terrorists in a court of law.
It now seems to be looking for ways to off-load this "extra luggage" as it gears up to hold the general polls later this year. Lt. Gen (retired) Moinuddin Haider, the powerful home minister of the military regime, announced his general amnesty plan for the arrested terrorists on March 7 providing the required face-saving for the government. The amnesty offer came a day after a high court lambasted the government for making the arrests without fulfilling legal requirements and adequate evidence.
"The government will not take any action against those activists of the banned groups, who are arrested but had no criminal record," Haider announced on a talk show broadcast by state-run radio last week.
The only condition that these activists will have to fulfill to secure their release will be to give a written undertaking to the government that they will not be participating in any future activity of their groups or parties, most of which have already been banned. "Many of the arrested people have already expressed their willingness to disassociate themselves from their parties," commented Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, who heads the National Crises Management Cell at the country's home ministry.
According to one official at the home ministry, as many as 30 to 40 percent of more than 2,000 arrested "terrorists" may soon see the world outside their jails after availing the amnesty offer. They all were rounded up following the nationwide address of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on Jan 12, wherein he had announced tough measures to fight extremism in the country. Most of the arrested workers, however, were the victims of circumstances with no past record of involvement in any crime or terrorist activity. Their only fault was that they were members of religious groups that were very legal before Musharraf's address.
In his address, Musharraf announced the banning of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-i-Mohammad -- the groups accused by India for the attack on its parliament in December last year and also included in the American list of terrorist groups. He also outlawed two sectarian parties -- Sipaha-i-Sahaba Pakistan (Force for the Defense of the Friends of Prophet Mohammad) and Shi'ite Tehrik Jaferia Pakistan. Also under the government's ban was the Jihadi party that had sent more than 15,000 people to fight along the Taliban after the U.S.-led coalition attacked Afghanistan on Oct 7 last year.
The general amnesty plan has followed the military government's failed efforts to establish special civilian-military courts for the speedy trial of the arrested thousands. However, the plan met tough resistance even from sections of society that had supported its crackdown against extremism. Particularly critical of the government's plan were lawyers, who said they would boycott the military courts, calling them indefensible. They said that such courts would undermine all norms of justice and the judiciary itself.
"The council is of the considered view that such anti-terrorism courts will be military courts for all intent and purposes and this would be unconstitutional," said the Pakistan Bar Council, an apex body of legal practitioners in Pakistan.
The lawyers demonstrated their disgust over the amendments by staging strikes all over the country and boycotting the existing civilian anti-terrorism courts that were formed during the Nawaz Sharif government. "This is an expression of a total lack of confidence in the learning, integrity and competence of the judiciary of this country," the PBC said in a resolution.
The lawyers are particularly annoyed that the military government is equating military officers with the judicial officers, negating the concept of an independent judiciary and trichotomy of powers in a federal system. "There are several other areas in the amended law that are a cause of serious concern," observed Rashid Razvi, a member of the PBC's Human Rights Committee.
He referred to the clause that empowers federal and provincial governments to authorize officers from police or any other investigation agency to conduct investigations into crimes related to terrorism. "By this scheme, the military government is seeking to displace civilian authority in investigations into crimes as well. The intelligence agencies are currently being authorized by law to implicate and investigate civilians. The new scheme will in fact extend the provisions of the Army Act to civilians," he said.
A lawyers' association was also able to win a stay order against the induction of military officers in the judicial system. But what came as a blow to the government's crackdown against extremism was an observation by a higher court, which said that the law enforcers "blindly" arrested the workers of religious parties.
"What sort of threat [had] the government felt that it blindly arrested the workers by using one order of arrest?" asked Justice Ma Shahid Siddiqui of the Lahore High Court as he heard on March 6 various petitions filed by the relatives of the religious workers challenging their arrests. The judge also criticized the government for arresting thousands of people on what he called "substandard" investigations.
The observation was indeed an embarrassment for the government, which was rejoicing over its successful swoop against Islamic extremists and winning praise, particularly from its supporters in the western governments. Although its amnesty offer to the arrested people has been generally welcomed by people as a right step that would mainstream these people, fears are being expressed within the government circles that they may go back to their old ways.
Many officials say that the government will have no way to monitor the activities of the people who would be availing general amnesty. They say that the banning of the groups, most of which were not registered with the government in the first place, does not mean they have stopped functioning. "The outlawed groups with their offices closed may have been working covertly...but who knows," said one official.
The upsurge in the sectarian violence in various parts of the country -- including the recent gunning down of 10 worshippers in a mosque near the Pakistani capital - are reflective of the fact that the war against terrorism is far from being won. The latest religious killings only show that the ban of groups thought to be involved in sectarian terrorism has not been effective, or there may be new players in the fray!
ISLAMABAD -- Foreigners living in Pakistan have started to leave the country in large numbers as the military government agrees to "full cooperation" with the United States in apprehending the masterminds of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.
As fear of an American attack on Afghanistan mounts and complete secrecy shrouds the government's moves and decisions, foreigners working in multinational companies, oil companies, non-governmental organizations and other aid agencies have started to leave the country. "Most bookings are sought on a one-way travel basis. Most of the leaving foreigners are Europeans, American and Japanese and are either high-level managers or technical staff in foreign companies," confirmed officials in the international airlines and travel industry. However, none of the travel agents reported any extraordinary movement of diplomats or United Nations personnel.
Most of these foreigners are traveling in groups of 10 or more. A large bulk of traffic is directed to London and other European cities, Tokyo, and Dubai. A group of around 70 Japanese is leaving tomorrow for Tokyo and other East Asian destinations. Smaller groups of German and Dutch nationals are also leaving in the next few days for destinations in Europe. An unidentified number of American nationals working in Pakistan took an Emirates flight out of Pakistan on Wednesday. "The groups which are not getting reservations through to their destinations are just going to Dubai. They just want to get out of here," said another travel agent, requesting not to be named.
While foreigners are leaving the country, the Pakistani people are totally confused about the shape of things to come. They are still unaware of the weekend decisions on the level of cooperation that the country's National Security Council and the cabinet agreed to extend to Washington. The country's Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar gave little details as he addressed the press conference, though he said the Pakistani president would address the nation sometime soon. What he did clarify was Pakistan's position that it does not want to be part of any military action outside its borders.
General Musharraf has already started to meet the political leaders and opinion-makers to take them into confidence over cooperation Islamabad has extended to Washington, though an alliance of 42 mainstream parties has voiced its opposition to American attack on Afghanistan and asked the government not to allow the U.S. to use the country's ground or airspace for their purpose.
The situation also became more complex after the Taliban administration issued a warning that it would declare war on any neighboring country that allowed the United States forces use its ground or airspace for an attack on Afghanistan. The warning was apparently aimed at Pakistan, which is now pressuring the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden (the prime suspect for attacks on the American cities) to the United States. Though the chances are slim that the Taliban would give in, the move is said to be Islamabad's last-ditch effort to ward off a full-fledged U.S. attack on war-ravaged Afghanistan.
The Taliban militia said, on the other hand, it would regard such cooperation as an act of war. "In such an eventuality, our mujahideen (holy warriors) will have no option but to attack that neighboring country," Pakistani domestic newswires quoted a Taliban foreign ministry statement issued in Kabul. The Taliban also ordered foreigners living or working in Afghanistan to leave the country immediately.
Although the Pakistani government is not divulging the details of its cooperation with the United States, the press conference followed statements from Washington thanking the government and the people of Pakistan for extending all support in the American resolve to severe the roots of terrorism that it traces to Afghanistan. In line with the American requests, the country has already sealed its borders with Afghanistan and cut off supplies, particularly fuel, to the Taliban government.
Islamabad is also providing intelligence cooperation to the U.S. and helping it with information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other military training camps in the war-ravaged country. Similarly, it has allowed U.S. warplanes to access Pakistani air space in the event of a military strike.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he wanted to thank the president and people of Pakistan for the support that they have offered and their willingness to assist the U.S. in whatever might be required in that part of the world.
Some later reports also suggested that Pakistan wants the U.S. to forgive its more than $35 billion external debt and help resolve the Kashmir issue. But the Pakistani people are in no way ready to support the U.S. against the Taliban and Osama, who they regard as their hero.
The rightwing religious parties have already issued warnings to the military government not to cooperate with the United States for an action against the Taliban. "Any attack on Afghanistan or against Osama bin Laden will be considered an attack against the sovereignty of Pakistan and conspiracy against the defense and nuclear capability of the country," declared Maulana Samiul Haq, who heads the hardcore rightwing Jamiat Ulema Islam (Party of Muslim Scholars).
Maulana, who is very influential with the Taliban, warns that the 140 million people of Pakistan would overthrow the military government if it allowed U.S. forces to use its country's soil, airspace or any other facilities for a strike against Afghanistan. "If America uses our soil, then it means that we have lost our dignity and sovereignty," roared Maulana, who runs a network of Islamic schools throughout the country.
And it's not only the religious parties, but also the general public who idealize Osama bin Laden as their hero. "Osama is our hero. He is being punished for denouncing the American hegemony. The U.S. wants to crush any voice against its repressive policies. Our government should not be part of any action that may cause bloodshed of fellow Muslims," said Babar Ali, who runs a car rental in Islamabad.
People feel that Washington is biased towards the Muslims and that it has demonstrated total insensitivity towards the killings of thousands of people in Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq. "Are they not terrorists to have made the Iraqi nation suffer where innocent civilians, babies and women are dying? The Pakistani nation will not want to help the U.S. terrorize already suffering people in Afghanistan who are dying of hunger and disease," said Amna Sajjad, who studies in Islamic University in Islamabad.
Some press reports, though not officially confirmed, indicated that Musharraf (in his Saturday meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin) expressed Islamabad's readiness to offer its ground facilities to a multinational force. This commitment, however, appears to be in line with the decisions taken by the military top brass, which had set parameters for cooperation with the United States.
"The military government desires active Chinese and Islamic states' participation in any drive to confront Taliban," the English-language daily The News on Saturday quoted military sources as saying.
The top military leaders, according to press reports, agreed that cooperation with the U.S. is essential in view of the country's economic situation. They feared that in the event of non-cooperation, Washington would do everything to financially squeeze Islamabad, which is already facing numerous sanctions after its nuclear tests in 1998. Pakistan is burdened under a staggering $35 billion in external loans and even higher domestic debt. The country is also negotiating a $3.5 billion poverty reduction package with the International Monetary Fund in the next few weeks, which military leaders thought would be jeopardized.
However, the situation stays fluid and uncertain, as the military government did not divulge any details to the public, though it reiterated cooperation for any international effort to root out terrorism. "Pakistan cannot join any attack on Afghan brethren. The U.S. should first decide and reveal how it came to know Osama's link to the devastation in New York and Washington," commented retired Gen. Aslam Baig, a former chief of the Pakistani army.
Muddassir Rizvi is a journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.