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Emergency in Pakistan victimises human rights defenders, civil society and media

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Dissenting voices in Pakistani politics have been coerced into oppressive silence through arbitrary changes in law and the constitution by President Musharraf since Emergency was declared on 2 November 2007. The lift of the Emergency on 15 December 2007 has done little to improve the human rights situation in Pakistan.

President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency, pointing to the increasing number of terrorist attacks and the rising level of violence as his justification. It has been clear, however, that these reasons were meant to conceal the true intentions for the proclamation, which was in fact to stifle an independent judiciary and a strong civil society which had been openly critical of President Musharraf’s actions threatening the rule of law in the country. Despite the lifting of the state of emergency, lawyers, judges and critics of the government remain detained.

As Chief of the Army Staff and the President of Pakistan, President Musharraf promulgated a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) making the Emergency a de facto martial law as the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan.

The imposition of the emergency paralysed the judicial machinery of the country as dissenting lawyers and judges were fired and detained, including the sacking of the Chief Justice himself. In the name of combating terrorists, police carried out a major crackdown and exercised brutality on civil society where thousands of human rights defenders and opposition politicians were targeted. Furthermore, a gag was placed on independent media where even private and foreign news channels were taken off the air for many days and only state-run channels airing pro-government propaganda continued to be broadcasted. Army troops were deployed at key strategic places such as the headquarters for television channels and radio stations as well as the Parliament, airport and other government buildings.

An amendment of the Army Act of 1952 gave wide-ranging powers to the army to court-martial civilians. Under the amended act, the army could try civilians on charges ranging from treason, sedition and attack on army personnel to “assaulting the president with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power” and “public mischief”. President Musharraf claimed that an ordinance empowering military courts to try civilians was meant to strengthen the government in the fight against terrorism and was not aimed at silencing critics. The law took retroactive effect from January 2003, granting the army immunity for detaining and “disappearing” people and allowing the military to arrest opponents with impunity.

Despite the official end of the emergency, the fundamental freedoms have not been restored and the rule of law is still not being respected. Democratic and political restoration will not be guaranteed by the lift of the emergency alone, so long as the human rights of the people of Pakistan continue to be violated.