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Why Imran Khan’s civilian government looks remarkably similar to Musharraf’s military dictatorship

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Lahore: Some undemocratic and repressive traits of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in Pakistan surfaced last weekend when several attempts to muzzle free speech were made during and after the third Asma Jahangir conference, held on 20 and November 21 in Lahore.

The conference has been held annually since 2018 in memory of Asma Jahangir, the late Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer, although the spread of the pandemic last year resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 session.

Members of the Supreme Judiciary attended the first day of the conference, including Saquib Nisar, the former Chief Justice of Pakistan, and Gulzar Ahmed, the current Chief Justice. Foreign dignitaries such as the Ambassadors of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands opened the conference with their speeches. Everything went smoothly until Ali Ahmed Kurd, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), took the podium. Then everything changed.

Dissenting speech

Kurdish has been known for his flamboyant and passionate speeches since 2008, when the Lawyers’ Movement, also known as the Movement for the Restoration of Justice, took place against the then ruling military dictator General Musharraf.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf speaks at a press conference in Dubai on March 23, 2013. Photo: Reuters

When he spoke at the conference it was with his usual theatrical voice rising higher and higher, his body language restless. As the audience enjoyed the drama, it soon became apparent that Kurdish speech was too direct and frank: you could almost see the tension building in some people. Pakistan’s chief justice, to whom the Kurdish criticisms were directed, seemed indifferent. But there was no doubt that every line Kurdish uttered was more critical than the last.

The subject of the Kurdish panel focused on “the role of the judiciary in the protection of human rights and the strengthening of democracy”. In his speech, he brazenly asked the conference organizers: What judicial system are you talking about? and went on to say that Pakistan’s judicial system has one of the lowest rankings in the world.

Out of 130, we are at number 126! A journalist asked me for my comment on this deplorable classification. I said, as a Pakistani, are you not happy that we are always four places higher than the bottom? Kurd said as the audience burst into laughter.

He also said that there is a clear division within the justice system and that this inefficiency is why Pakistan’s ranking is so deplorable.

Aik general (a general)! ” Kurd shouted four times in front of the audience, delighted with what he had said so far and anticipating more taunts against the establishment, allowed him to finish the sentence. It was only after Ahsan Bhoon, the current president of the SCBA, succeeded in silencing a group of students chanting slogans like Hum cheen kay lenge azadi (We are going to take our freedom)! Could Kurd continue, after which he said: In this country, a [army] general was more than 220 million citizens, which caused serious unease among several people in the crowd.

A day later, Kurdish was charged with article 6 (high treason). This is nothing new to him. He had faced the same charge in 2008 when police claimed that after the funeral prayers of assassinated Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti on August 29, Kurdish made reprehensible speeches against the state and urged people to shut themselves down. oppose the government. While the 2008 charge was later dropped, it’s hard not to compare the civilian government of Imran Khan of today to the military dictatorship of 2008.

Also read: Pakistan Cricket and the inevitable date with heartaches

“A thing made by rats”

The Kurds’ speech obviously went viral, leading to trolls accusing the lawyer of sedition and a backlash against the conference organizers. But it was on the second day of the conference, Sunday, November 21, that Pakistan faced one of its worst censorship incidents in recent times when popular political leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was abruptly cut off during the live video call he was participating in the conference through.

The Pakistan Muslim League leader was invited to the conference’s closing roundtable with leaders of other political parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) in to be able to.

While senior PPP leader Senator Farhatullah Babar arrived quickly, PTI, Fawad Chaudhry, ironically, Pakistan’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting refused to come. He announced it not to the organizers, but via a tweet.

I was invited to the Asma Jahangir conference today. I was told the conference would end with a speech by a fugitive defendant. Obviously, that amounts to making fun of the country and the constitution. I apologized for not attending the conference, Chaudhry said in the tweet.

But when organizers did not give up on including the PML-N leader in the panel, the government used lower methods to try to stop them.

At first, cellular services broke two hours before the closing session. Then, when the video call connected, seconds after Sharifs’ speech which began with a condemnation of the crackdown on free speech, the call disconnected.

According to the organizers, they had been informed that the Pakistani government-run Telecommunications Authority would send people to Internet service providers and tell them to cut the connection. They had therefore made other arrangements.

They tried to block us, but we are not far behind. We have always been able to circumvent their tactics to muzzle us. Cutting cables is a thing made by rats, said Asmas’ daughter Munizae Jahangir, journalist, presenter and one of the main organizers of the event.

And so a telephone address followed. We couldn’t hear much because the sound quality was poor, but the movement symbolized resistance.

Also read: Ambedkars Warnings on three types of dictatorships

“Your regime resides in glass houses”

The Nawaz Sharif fiasco was to be expected, although the organizers had not broken any laws. While a notice issued by Pakistani electronic media watchdog PEMRA had banned the broadcast of live video of Sharif, the ban extends to television only, not to an address at a rally, not even to people. digital media.

The fact that the government was uncomfortable about the conference’s open conversations was also felt when it did not allow the granting of visas to foreign guests invited as speakers, including those from ‘India. Journalists Barkha Dutt and Jyoti Malhotra and lawyer Vrinda Grover all had to participate online because they had not received a visa. Steven Butler, the Asia-Pacific head of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was also not allowed to attend for the second time in a row. For the 2019 conference, when Butler, armed with a valid visa arrived at the airport, he was actually banned from leaving and deported.

The intimidation by the government has not stopped. Fawad Chaudhry and other members of the PTI cabinet have called for an investigation into the funds of the event’s chief organizer, the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Unit, known locally as AGHS. This was after the entire event was reportedly funded by the European Union, the German Embassy, ​​the Netherlands Embassy and the Canadian High Commission. The PTI government constantly publishes statements against the conference, calling it an overseas-funded event. This accusation has often been brought against Asma Jahangir too but almost nothing has ever been proven.

Posting a photo of Fawad Chaudhry accusing event organizers of using foreign funds, journalist and author Nadeem Farooq Paracha joked on social media: Bhai, pura mulk ghair mulki finance pe chal raha hai. Kya IMF mulki idara hai, head office of jiska Jhelum mein hai (Dude, the whole country works with foreign funding. Is the IMF a local institution, headquartered in Jhelum)? Your diet resides in the greenhouses, Fawad Sahib. I shouldn’t throw stones.

On November 23, a letter was written by Aliya Hamza Malik, Member of the National Assembly, who requested that the following issues be addressed in the assembly: besides the source of funding, the work being done by AGHS and why the forum gave a place to a fugitive on the panel.

AGHS was founded in 1984 by four female lawyers, including Asma Jahangir and her sister Hina Jilani, both prominent human rights lawyers in the country and recipients of international awards. The organization provides access to free legal aid to all marginalized communities, especially women and children, and minorities. During her lifetime, Asma has won a plethora of cases where basic human rights have been ruthlessly violated, including cases of blasphemy, forced labor, the right to inheritance, violence against women, rape and forced marriage. One such case rocked the nation when a young woman who wanted to marry on her own accord was gunned down by her own father inside the AGHS shelter, Dastak.

The (over) sensitivity of the PTI government regarding freedom of speech and expression as well as a free press has increased in recent times, it seems. On November 22, just a day after the conference, the prime minister himself ordered an investigation against a senior co-secretary in the cabinet division for posting “objectionable comments” against the ruling party on a platform social media.

The message reportedly read in Urdu: A similarity between the PTI and the Taliban is that the two only figure out how to run the government after they come to power. And the center of hope for both is Aabpara. (Aabpara is where the Lal Masjid is located).

Pakistani governments, not only this one, but also previous ones refuse to understand that it is useless to suppress the press. They may try to crush it, but the audience continues to speak out and form their own narrative in another way.

If the government is to be seen as a democratically elected organization, if it wants people to believe that this is an honest and uncorrupted agenda that Imran Khan always seems to be championing, it must stop muzzling the press and silencing the public. dissent. After all, freedom of expression is a basic human right.

Xari Jalil is a journalist who works from Karachi and Lahore. She is also the co-founder of Voicepk.net, a nonprofit, nonprofit digital human rights platform. She tweets to @xarijalil.

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