Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

The Real Musharraf

It was close to midnight last Saturday when Gen. Pervez Musharraf finally appeared on state-run television. That's when police vans surrounded my house. I was warned not to leave, and hours later I learned I would be detained for 90 days.

At least I have the luxury of staying at home, though I cannot see anyone. But I can only watch, helpless, as this horror unfolds.

The Musharraf government has declared martial law to settle scores with lawyers and judges. Hundreds of innocent Pakistanis have been rounded up. Human rights activists, including women and senior citizens, have been beaten by police. Judges have been arrested and lawyers battered in their offices and the streets.

These citizens are our true assets: young, progressive and full of spirit. Many of them were trained to uphold the rule of law. They are being brutalized for seeking justice.

Musharraf justified his draconian measures by saying he needed to be able to use all his might to fight the terrorists infecting our country. Yet the day after he declared an emergency, the Dawn newspaper reported that scores of terrorists were released by the government. While tyranny was being unleashed on peaceful citizens, the notorious militant Fazalullah (also known as Maulana Radio) had seized the beautiful town of Madyan, according to the Daily Times, and hoisted his "Islamic" flag over buildings while the security forces surrendered.

Musharraf has implied that militancy increased in Pakistan because of judicial interference in governance. But until this past March, the judiciary had yielded to all executive demands. Five years ago, the general dismissed the then-chief justice and his colleagues, charging that they were obstructing his process of democratization. What is democratic about a judiciary that's not independent?

In recent days police have raided the home of the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association - his wife has gone into hiding - and the law chambers of two former presidents of the bar. Their clerks have been harassed. Military intelligence officers are interrogating leading attorneys. Meanwhile, unknown lawyers are being elevated to the bench.

Since Saturday, police officers have barged into my house twice after receiving (false) warnings that I had escaped. On seeing me, they sheepishly admitted they were misled.

I have tried to make them understand the difference between people such as myself and terrorists. "If I did run away, how far would I go?" I asked them. "In any event, I am not likely to blow myself up around the corner." One police officer said that he agreed but that his job was at greater risk if I got away than if a terrorist escaped the law. Terrorists, he pointed out, outnumber rights activists in our country.

The officer argued that lawyers and judges hamper law enforcement. "How can we bring law and order if we cannot torture criminals? We must be given a free hand to deal with terrorists, and the chief justice has no business to ask us to produce them in courts. We are itching to lay our hands on all those judges who humiliated us for carrying out our duties," he told me. When I asked how he knew who the terrorists were, he insisted that the intelligence was infallible.

Yet he didn't know I hadn't escaped from my house.

The international community is alarmed at Musharraf's actions, but Pakistanis expected this. The Bush administration had built up the general as moderate and benign, but the true face of this regime has been exposed.

A balanced picture of Pakistan had begun to emerge in recent weeks. Thousands turned out to greet Benazir Bhutto upon her return last month; Pakistanis were progressive-minded enough to elect a female political leader years ago. Hundreds of progressive-minded lawyers have rallied for democratic values. I welcome Bhutto's call for the Pakistan People's Party to join the demonstrations.

But Pakistan is threatened by Islamist militants, and our civil society suffers the worst of this creeping Talibanization. Woefully, the Musharraf regime is neither inclined to reverse this trend nor capable of doing so. No one has exact solutions, but there is virtual unanimity that Pakistan's political leadership must take charge and that the military must cooperate with an elected civilian government.

Musharraf's promises to hold elections by Feb. 15 or to resign from the army are a red herring. He has pledged before to give up his uniform and failed to follow through. Any election held under these circumstances will not be free and will only put the crisis on hold. Furthermore, militarization will kill the spirit of the progressive forces while boosting the terrorists' morale.

A transition to democracy is crucial, but unless freedom of the press and the judiciary's independence are restored, any changes will remain toothless. It will be difficult to put Pakistan on the path to democracy, but we must begin now, before it is too late.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.