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Making war on lawyers

The U.S. should halt military aid to Pakistan until it frees jailed lawyers, judges and democracy advocates.

November 08, 2007

Instead of mounting an assault on the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists swarming in Pakistan's northwestern territories, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has declared war on the rule of law and his country's independent judicial system. Aping Bush administration rhetoric about "judicial activism" and the so-called war on terror and the words of Abraham Lincoln as justification, Musharraf has rounded up roughly 3,000 lawyers, as well as independent judges and democracy activists, and some reportedly have been beaten. These are the very secular, educated and middle-class leaders Pakistan most needs to build a stable constitutional democracy that can withstand extremist Islamic fundamentalism.

On Wednesday, police clashed with demonstrators outside the parliament building and reportedly began mass arrests of supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Musharraf's contention that emergency rule will preserve "stability" has been exposed as absurd, though his fears that the Pakistani public wants an end to his unconstitutional, strongman tactics appear to be well-founded.

The list of detainees reads like a Who's Who of Pakistani civil society, including:

Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, chief justice of the Supreme Court, whose refusal to rubber-stamp Musharraf's scheme to rig his reelection triggered the current crisis; fired by Musharraf twice, now under house arrest.

Asma Jehangir, the country's best-known human rights lawyer. She was a founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1986 and has been the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief since 2004; under 90 days' house arrest.

Iqbal Haider, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; jailed.

Aitzaz Ahsan, Cambridge-educated president of the Supreme Court Bar Assn. and Chaudhry's lawyer, a former member of parliament and government minister; along with two other former bar presidents, sentenced to one month in prison under a preventive detention law.

I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; jailed with 54 other human rights activists, reportedly released Tuesday on bail.

Javed Hashmi, key opposition leader, a founder of the Alliance to Restore Democracy, former member of parliament and minister of health, former political prisoner; under arrest.

These political prisoners -- and hundreds of others whose names are less well known in the West -- should be released unharmed and without charges immediately. And the U.S. Congress must suspend military aid to the Musharraf government until the rule of law is restored.

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