Pakistan: House arrest of Asma Jahangir turns Musharraf into a global laughing stock Print E-mail

 Saturday, November 10, 2007; Page A12

A Human Rights Champion, Cheerfully Defiant

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 9 -- Female prison guards sit in Asma Jahangir's art-filled living room, watching as she sips tea, smokes cigarettes and talks about how proud she is to be Pakistani.

Jahangir, a lawyer and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was placed under house arrest last Saturday, and since then the government has turned her two-story family villa into a jail. More than 20 prison guards, some with submachine guns, are posted in her garden, and plainclothes officers in oversize suits peer through her windows.

Pakistani activist Asma Jahangir, shown in Afghanistan in 2002, has been confined to her home since last Saturday. (By Apichart Weerawong -- Associated Press)

Her country is now in a state of turmoil, following President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule, which has included the firing of Supreme Court justices and the detention of hundreds of opposition leaders, lawyers and human rights activists.

But Jahangir remains defiant and upbeat, waving to neighbors and continuing to work on position papers on how to bring the rule of law, an independent judiciary and stability to Pakistan.

Life under house arrest has been "just lovely, and it hasn't hurt me," Jahangir, 55 and a mother of three, said Friday in an interview at her home. "I am so proud of Pakistanis and specifically of our lawyers for speaking out and getting their heads bashed in for a better Pakistan."

"We are so resilient as a people," she said. "I have so much respect for their dignity and courage. I hope the world sees this side of Pakistan, one where professionals want a democracy. The spirit of our intelligentsia cannot be broken."

The government has filed terrorism charges against Jahangir and ordered her to stay confined to her house for 90 days. She can no longer go to her office next door or even sit in her garden.

But her popularity has only grown, and news media in Pakistan and abroad are calling her South Asia's version of Burmese human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Pakistanis living abroad have also sent her e-mails expressing their support, she said.

"When you think of human rights in Pakistan, you think of Asma Jahangir," said Maria Hasan, a recent graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, the scene of demonstrations against the emergency rule. "She's our national hero. She's very daring, and we, especially women, really admire her for that."

After intense pressure from U.S. diplomats, 70 civil society leaders, including professors, poets and doctors, were released from jail or house arrest after their detention Sunday for attending a Human Rights Commission meeting.

But Jahangir has not been allowed to leave her home.

"There is a limit to people's patience with brute force," she said. "I do worry about . . . blood being spilled. I don't want to see that in my country."

When the prison guards tried to listen in on her conversation during the interview, she shooed them away. "Please," she said firmly, "go rest in my lobby, take a chair and sit. Relax, even. You will not listen to this."

They shuffled out of the room.

The U.S. consul general in Lahore, Bryan D. Hunt, visited Jahangir for several hours Friday and later released a statement urging her release and free and fair elections.

Musharraf has said emergency rule was needed to combat extremism. But critics say he has instead targeted the political opposition and members of civil society, whom he sees as a threat to his hold on power.

Musharraf once invited Jahangir to join his government, she said, but she refused. He later called her unpatriotic for being too critical of what he called Pakistani culture.

Jahangir, her sister and several other women founded the first all-female law firm in Pakistan. At the outset, her most highly publicized cases involved women accused of adultery, a crime once punishable by 10 years in jail and public whippings.

After years of being belittled, she finally won the respect of men in her profession through hard work, compassion and victory in numerous cases, activists said. She has received international acclaim and several awards for her work with women seeking divorces from abusive husbands and with teenagers on death row, as well as her efforts against extremism.

Jahangir said she has been inspired by the many imprisoned women she has met. For instance, she became close friends with a blind woman who was charged with adultery after being gang-raped. Jahangir filed a protest and sent stories about the case around the world. The woman was released.

"She's an extraordinary leader, beloved in a place where there are few heroes," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "And Musharraf wants to silence anyone like her who will question his rule."

Jahangir has received death threats, but she said she finds the allegations against her ridiculous, especially those leveled this week involving terrorism.

"Does Musharraf really believe I am a terrorist?" she said, laughing and eating a snack of tomatoes and spicy chicken patties. "Yes, I am a total hooligan, bombing and looting and creating terror?"

She takes pride in her family's long history of activism. Her father was a civil servant who quit in protest after Pakistan's first military coup. He was idealistic, she said, and took up politics, but was in and out of jail throughout her childhood.

"Every time he went off to jail, my father said to me, 'I am doing this so you can live in a freer country.' Now we are going through some horrible birthing pains in this country. And they have to stop it. The world has to have zero tolerance for naked dictatorship," she said. "There are so many Pakistanis facing violence for protesting. There are so many wives of lawyers who've had to sell their wedding jewels because their husbands are not earning or are in jail. Look at the world, all the suffering. . . . Being under house arrest is the least I can sacrifice."


 Saturday, November 10, 2007

Guest Voice

Voice from House Arrest: Don't Let Pakistan Follow Burma

By Afsin Yurdakul

‘’I can’t speak for too long on the phone,’’ Asma Jahangir said in a calm, determined tone, ‘‘the military might cut it off.’’ Nonetheless, Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer and activist accepted my offer of a phone interview this morning. She spoke from her home, where she was being held under house arrest, via the one phone line that the Pakistani police had somehow forgotten to cut off.

She spoke quickly, not because she was nervous, but because she wanted to tell the world as much as she could about what is really going on behind the scenes of Pakistan’s current political turmoil. She said the electronic media is completely shut down, and satellite dishes have been removed from the supermarket shelves, ostensibly by the military, to prevent people from getting or spreading any information about the state of emergency.

Jahangir urged the world not to turn a blind eye to violations of democracy and free speech in Pakistan, and called for maximum international pressure on General Pervez Musharraf.

However, as she was telling me that these are defining moments for her country’s future, the police interjected, and we lost the connection. I called back immediately. A male voice answered (she had been home alone only moments before) and told me that ‘she was not allowed to talk anymore,’ because ‘she was with the police.’ At the moment I have no information regarding her status.

I originally conducted this interview for Turkey’s NTV-MSNBC news portal, where it was published this morning in Turkish. I worry that the interview itself, intended as a chance for her to speak freely, is in fact a chilling example of the ban on free speech in Pakistan today.
Afsin Yurdakul: What is daily life like for you under house arrest?

Asma Jahangir: For me it has been very busy. I have been writing a lot, I have been receiving news, I have been watching with great anguish how my lawyer colleagues have been beaten up. And, so, for me it is far better than what has been difficult for most of the people in this country. Hundreds and thousands of lawyers have been dragged to jail and a lot of violence has been perpetrated on them. Judges and seniors of the upper courts have been put under house arrest. There is a kind of uncertainty in the air. People are uncomfortable, people are worried. The activists are all out. There is no electronic media, only state-controlled media. So information is slow. People are running to the shops to buy satellite dishes, some of which have sold out. Police are taking the rest away from the shops. So, the government is really coming down hard on trying to ensure that people don’t get any kind of information. And yet, the opposition and the protests are not stopping, though they certainly came down because the leaders are in jail. But the intensity of these protests are there.

A.Y: Is it OK to give a phone interview under house arrest ?

A.J: Normally it would not be ok, but they somehow left one of my land lines open. Sometimes they cut it off and sometimes it is working. Whenever the phone rings, I take the opportunity to speak. I was just told that I can’t leave the house, no one can come and see me. Nobody is allowed inside the house and I am by myself.

A.Y: I would like you to give us some background information about the political turmoil at the moment…

A.J: I can’t speak for too long on the phone, because the military cuts off the phone after three minutes. Well, we have been under dictatorship. We know what it is to be under dictatorship. And the transition from the military to the political forces has not yet been completed in our country. General Musharraf kept promising that he is going to leave the post of Army Chief. He now promised, not only in court but also publicly, that he will leave one post or the other - which he has no intention to do. And as the time goes by, he tries other strict measures to put the country under martial law. People are not going to accept this because there is more awareness.

A.Y: How has the state of emergency changed the dynamics in the country?

A.J: Well, for one, there are no courts. All the judges are under house arrest. They have put in new judges but the lawyers have refused to appear before them.

And secondly, there is no electronic media. So people don’t know, not even BBC, CNN, so people don’t know what is happening in Pakistan, and the rest of the world. It is heavily censored.

The stock market has crashed. So people are very fearful and very [worried.] There are protests, there are traffic jams, a lot of police, which [are using] batons, tear gas...

A.Y: Any message you would like to give to the world, given there is very little media access right now?

A.J: Yes, I think that it is now time for the world to start accepting that dictatorship cannot be excused under any pretext or the other. And it is best not to let it go down to a level where we all become Myanmar, and come to the stage of Burma. That prevention should be taken now. They should have zero tolerance for this.

: What do you think General Musharraf's motive for declaring the emergency was? Is he taking refuge in this?

A.J: Well, I think General Musharraf could take any decision to keep himself in power. He has no care for the people, he does not care about the country. The only person he cares for is himself and the power that he has.

A.Y: And, how do you see the political future of your country?

A.J: Well this is a very defining moment and it is....

The line cuts off, and I call again. A male voice answers.

A.Y: Hello, can I speak with Ms. Jahangir?

Male Voice
: Not allowed to!

A.Y: Is she there?

Voice: No.

A.Y: Is she with the police?

: Yes, police, yes.

A.Y: Is the police there?

Voice: Yes, the police has her.

Afsin Yurdakul is a reporter and editor for Turkish news portal NTV-MSNBC's World News Desk.

Posted by Afsin Yurdakul on November 9, 2007 7:12 PM