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POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Emergency Lifted But Democracy Elusive

Analysis by Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Dec 15 2007 (IPS) - President Pervez Musharraf’s lifting of emergency rule over Pakistan and restoration of the Constitution is insufficient to put the country on the path to democracy say civil rights activists.

For one thing, there is the unprecedented situation created by most of the country’s higher judiciary refusing to take oath under Musharraf’s Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) of Nov 3. Anti-press laws and restrictions on the electronic media remain. And last, but not least, is Musharraf himself, elected as president for the next five years while still in army uniform, by an outgoing assembly.

The judges who refused to take oath under the PCO may "have ceased to be judges" according to caretaker Law Minister Afzal Haider since they were neither dismissed nor had relinquished their offices, but many of them refuse to accept this position. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the majority of judges of the Supreme Court and the four provincial High Courts refused to legitimise a PCO. The stance of these ‘non-PCO judges’ is also unprecedented: they still consider themselves to be the rightful judges.

Ordinary citizens have taken the lead from the ‘peaceful defiance’ of the judges, symbolised by the deposed chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar A. Choudhry, who has been under house arrest in his official residence since Nov 3.

Many lawyers support this position. The day after the imposition of martial law, lawyers in Karachi began sending out cell phone text messages proclaiming that non-PCO chief justice Sabihuddin Ahmed of the Sindh High Court "is our Chief Justice. All judges continue to hold office. We do not recognise (the new Chief Justice sworn in that day)."

Several of the deposed judges are still in their official residences. When Justice M.A. Shahid Siddiqui of the Lahore High Court on Nov 30 received a letter from the LHC Registrar dated Nov. 16, requesting him to vacate his official residence, he issued a notice to the Registrar. Terming the letter "an attempt to intimidate and overawe judges who have not surrendered to the Chief of Army Staff," he wrote: "I, therefore, as a sitting Judge of the Lahore High Court direct the Registrar of this Court to explain as to why and at whose instance he issued this letter asking me to vacate my official residence. The reply shall be submitted within a month."

The exchange triggered off another chain of events that proved most embarrassing to the government. Students and lawyers began holding vigil outside Justice Siddiqui’s residence. Many stayed outside all night in the chill of the Lahore winter, including the well known activists and lawyers Asma Jahangir and Hina Jillani, along with a host of other high profile advocates.

"We will continue to hold vigil outside Justice Siddiqui’s house," said Hamid Khan, former president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association. Despite threats from police, activists and lawyers rotated shifts around the clock for several days in order to prevent the eviction of Justice Shahid Siddiqui from his official residence.

The saga ended when Justice Siddiqui, a heart patient, had to be rushed to the hospital with chest pain. Late that night, police arrested about a dozen lawyers and students holding vigil outside his residence. They were released from prison after a few days and charges against them withdrawn. Justice Siddiqui is in hospital, and his family is still in their official residence.

On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day – observed by Pakistani lawyers, civil society organizations and human rights groups as a ‘black day’ – deposed Sindh High Court chief justice Sabihuddin Ahmed took the position that he could not comment on the PCO because his comments might be misconstrued as a judicial pronouncement "because I am still the chief justice of the high court."

Meanwhile, journalists hold that the lifting of emergency rule is meaningless for the media unless government withdraws the amended Registration of Printing and Publication Ordinance, 2002 and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, (PEMRA-2002) that continue to be used against the free media.

Mazhar Abbas, general secretary of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists notes that the closure of even one or two private television channels (Geo and Royal TV) is a "violation of Article 19, of the Constitution which provides freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of the press. If this article has been restored then why have these channels not been allowed to resume transmission?"

"The continued ban on TV anchors, talk shows and live call-ins has restricted TV channels from free coverage of elections," he said. "It is also the violation of citizen&#39s right to speech as provided in the Constitution."

Musharraf pushed through six more amendments in the Constitution through executive orders on Friday, a day before lifting the emergency, revoking the Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) and restoring the Constitution. His first act after restoring the Constitution was to swear in new members of Pakistan&#39s Supreme Court.

For many in Pakistan, the fact that Musharraf was elected as president "while still in army uniform by an assembly that had completed its term and had no mandate to elect him for another five years," as one activist put it, de-legitismises his holding of this office.

A Lahore High Court advocate, Asad Jamal, questioned his restoration of the Constitution, terming it as meaningless given the over a dozen amendments that Musharraf has pushed through over the past month that provide immunity to himself and his actions. "He has destroyed the character of the Constitution," said Jamal. "He will make sure that there is no need to ratify these amendments in Parliament, unless he is sure of the requisite two-thirds majority."

But getting Musharraf out of the equation will not dent the military-backed system he represents. ‘’As long as the military continues to run the show, bankrolled and supported by Washington for its own short term interests on &#39the war on terror&#39, and as long as Pakistani politicians continue to collude with the system without addressing the real issues of poverty, unemployment and education, Pakistan will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis,’’ one analyst said, requesting anonymity.

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