Winding Back Martial Law in Pakistan
Winding Back Martial Law in Pakistan
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing / Asia 4 minutes

Winding Back Martial Law in Pakistan

General Pervez Musharraf imposed martial law in Pakistan on 3 November 2007.

I. Overview

General Pervez Musharraf imposed martial law in Pakistan on 3 November 2007. He suspended the constitution, sacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court and removed other judges of that court who declared his act illegal. Police immediately began arresting lawyers, politicians and human rights activists. Independent television channels were taken off the air and reporting restrictions imposed. Thousands have since been jailed, journalists threatened and protests by lawyers and others suppressed. Replacing dissenting judges with hand-picked appointees, and ruling by decree, Musharraf’s objective is to retain personal power by gaining judicial approval for martial law, followed by the creation of a democratic façade through rigged elections. The international community should demand the immediate restoration of constitutional order, the rule of law and the legitimate judiciary, the release of political prisoners and the appointment of an impartial caretaker government to oversee free and fair elections.

Musharraf has said he expects polls before 9 January and will take off his uniform before taking his oath for a new presidential term. But this offer does not go far enough. No proper elections can be held under martial law, supervised by a Musharraf-controlled Election Commission and a judiciary that has been purged and hand-selected by the military, and while some political leaders are in jail and others are barred from standing.

Musharraf claims he acted to restore stability but in fact he has sought to stamp out demands for democracy after eight years of military rule. The general’s claims to legitimacy had worn thin, and he was facing a challenge by the Supreme Court to his re-election as president by a lame-duck and stacked electoral college in October. While saying he was tackling extremism, the arrests of non-violent, secular people showed his true intentions. Even as the military was filling the jails with lawyers and journalists, they were releasing 28 militants, some of whom had been convicted of terrorism, in yet another deal with violent extremists.

In response to all this, the U.S., the UK and the European Union (EU) have expressed disappointment, but signalled they wish to continue cooperation with President Musharraf and his government, particularly on counter-terrorism. The focus has been on the need for Musharraf to remove his uniform and conduct elections – not on the necessity of restoring the constitutional order and the rule of law. The mistakes of the international response in the past to Pakistan are being repeated. The general has used the issue of terrorism with skill for years, drip-feeding anxious Western governments limited intelligence on jihadi groups while doing little to address extremism at home. Officials in Washington and London have been particularly prone to mistaken belief that the choice in Pakistan is between democracy and stability. Apart from handing over a few high-level al-Qaeda members, Pakistan has done little else: it has refused to close Taliban camps and jihadi madrasas or end extremist recruitment and fundraising. Driven by what is even in the short term a highly questionable interpretation of their security interests, Western governments have weakened their long-term security by supporting military rule rather than democratic institutions and the people of Pakistan.

A strong international response to military dictatorship has been hampered by anxiety that Pakistan might become another Iran, hostile to Western interests and yet a greater security threat if Musharraf were to leave the scene, as happened when the Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah in 1979. The analogy is false. Pakistan is a very different country, with a vibrant civil society, courageous and respected judicial and media institutions and above all a long democratic tradition and civilian parties that are widely popular and experienced in government. Its extremist forces have gained what status they have in the country’s politics as the beneficiaries of military manipulation, not broad citizen support.

This latest coup makes it essential to rethink policy towards Pakistan and to recognise that Musharraf is not only not indispensable; he is a serious liability. Extremism would be better reduced now and would be more assuredly barred in the future by the rule of law under a democratic government led by one of the moderate political parties.

In response to martial law, the international community should take the following steps:

  • speak out unequivocally for democracy in Pakistan, rejecting the idea that martial law is needed for stability, and demand a return to constitutional order;
  • outline a series of graduated sanctions starting immediately with suspension of high-level talks on military cooperation, suspension of new military training, review of military aid to distinguish what is essential counter-terrorism (CT) help from general assistance, and establishment of performance-based conditionality on all non-CT military assistance until constitutional order is restored;
  • follow this up – if Musharraf makes it necessary by not giving up his post as army chief by 15 November when his parliamentary dispensation to hold that post as well as the presidency expires, and does not restore the constitution, release political prisoners, restore the independent judiciary and accept its judgement on the legality of his October 2007 re-election as president, and set a date for elections – with gradually tougher sanctions, including suspension of all non-CT military aid and visa bans for top military and government officials;
  • if these steps are not taken within 30 days, restrict non-CT arms sales; freeze officer training abroad and foreign assets of the military and its foundations and businesses; and refuse to accept high-level visits by Pakistani officials for as long as the constitution is not restored and the military holds politicians, lawyers and civil society actors under arrest and otherwise restricts their civic freedoms; also insist that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) be given unrestricted access to prevent torture and abuse in custody; and simultaneously
  • expand aid for education, poverty reduction, healthcare and relief work, channelling money through secular non-governmental organisations (NGOs).


Islamabad/Brussels, 12 November 2007

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