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Pakistan

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Bangladesh: The Trials

17 July 2013

Bangladesh: The Trials

By Gwynne Dyer

Genocide is always a difficult crime for courts to deal with, and all the more so when it happened 42 years ago. But Bangladesh is really making a mess of it – largely because most of the old men on trial are leading members of a political party that is part of the country’s official opposition.

“It is undeniable that a massive genocide took place in the then East Pakistan,” Justice Anwarul Haque said on 17 July as he imposed a death sentence on Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Secretary-General of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. “This massacre can only be compared to the slaughter by Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.”

That is an exaggeration, but not a very big one. The official Bangladeshi estimate is that 3 million people were killed, and 200,000 women were raped, by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators during the independence war of 1971. Few countries have had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh.

For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But it was always controlled by the western half (today’s Pakistan), and when it attempted to break away in 1971 the Pakistan army tried to drown the independence movement in blood.

It was aided by local paramilitary groups, made up mostly of pious Muslims who believed that Pakistan must be preserved as the single home for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Initially they targeted secular intellectuals and the Hindu minority for murder, but in the end they were slaughtering whole villages that supported the nationalist cause. The killing lasted for nine months.

Eventually the Indian army intervened and the Pakistani forces were forced to surrender. But the Pakistani soldiers were all sent home, and the leaders of the local paramilitary forces that fought alongside them fled abroad. And then, after some years in exile, the leaders of the genocide came home again and went into politics.

They came home because a military coup in 1975 virtually exterminated the family of Mujibur Rahman, the secular politician who led the country to independence. The generals who wound up in power tried to win popular support by pushing an Islamic agenda, which left the returned exiles free to found the Jamaat-e-Islami Party. By the 1990s, when democracy returned, they were even serving as junior partners in governing coalitions.

Their senior coalition partner was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, created by one of the generals and still led by his widow, Khaleda Zia. The other main party, the Awami League, is led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred “father of the nation”, Mujibur Rahman. The two women loathe each other, and their bitter rivalry has dominated and often paralysed Bangladeshi politics for the past twenty years.

Sheikh Hasina promised to put the perpetrators of the genocide on trial in her election platform in 2008. She won by a landslide, and the trials began in 2010. There was strong international support for her decision at first, but the conduct of the trials has left much to be desired. Most of the accused were certainly implicated in the killing, but the BNP has quite rightly accused the government of politicising the trials.

The Jamaat-e-Islami has portrayed the trials as an attack on Islam, and when the first death sentence was handed down in February there were violent nationwide protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Youth League, leaving about 150 people dead. When the first life sentence was given out a few days later, hundreds of thousands of other young people demonstrated to demand the death penalty for all of those convicted.

They were driven by the fear that if the BNP wins the next election (due by January), then it will amnesty all the surviving Jamaat leaders to preserve its electoral alliance with the Islamist party. The Awami League has responded to their demand by passing a new law that shortened the time allowed for appeals, so that they can be hanged before the next election. Lynch law.

There is a way out of this, and it could end the twenty-year stalemate in Bangladeshi politics. In a poll before the last election, four out of five young Bangladeshis said they wanted to see the perpetrators of the genocide brought to trial: the crimes have not been forgotten. So give them what they want, but don’t kill anybody.

The Awami League said that it was setting out to exorcise “historical ghosts”, and it can do so without hanging old men. Nor does the BNP need to preserve its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami: the party only got 3 percent of the vote in the last election.

So let the convictions stand but don’t hang anybody – most of them will be dead in a few years anyway – and just move on. It would take more statesmanship than either party has shown in the past, but it would open the way to a better future for the country.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Jamaat…law”)

Pakistan

15 May 2013

Pakistan’s New Government: An Older and Wiser Nawaz Sharif?

By Gwynne Dyer

The first time Nawaz Sharif became prime minister of Pakistan was almost a quarter-century ago. His second term was ended fourteen years ago by a military coup that drove him into exile. Now he’s back, a good deal older – but is he any wiser?

Pakistanis seem to think so – or at least Punjabis do. Almost all of the seats won by his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Party in last Saturday’s election were in the province of Punjab, which has more people than all of Pakistan’s other provinces combined.

That weakens the legitimacy of his victory, but with the support of some candidates who won as independents he will have no trouble in forming a majority government. The question is: what will that government do?

It’s a good question, because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 160 million people that has borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran. It is also, in the view of some observers, fairly close to being a “failed state”.

Everybody knows that Nawaz Sharif is conservative, pro-business, and devout – during his second term, he tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce Sharia law – but he hasn’t been tremendously forthcoming about his actual plans for his third term. And some of the things he did say have caused concern in various quarters.

The thing that most worries the United States is his declaration that Pakistan should end its involvement in the US-led “war on terror”. The army in unhappy about his proposal that the government should negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban (who conducted a campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings against the “secular” political parties in the recent election) rather than just fighting them.

And everybody is wondering what Nawaz will do about the economy. The country’s balance of payments is in ruins, and it cannot meet its foreign debt obligations without negotiating new loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Those loans would come with onerous conditions about balancing the budget and fixing the tax system, and they wouldn’t come at all without American support.

Pakistan is technically a middle-income country, but during the outgoing government’s five years in office power shortages grew so acute that most regions are facing power outages for up to 12 hours a day. Millions of vehicles fuelled by natural gas have been immobilised by gas shortages. The country desperately needs foreign investment, but the plague of Islamist terrorism frightens investors away.

Finally, the United States will be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan next year, and Nawaz Sharif will have to decide what he wants to do about the Taliban in that country (who still have the tacit support of Pakistan’s army). The key to all these puzzles, oddly enough, may lie in the incoming prime minister’s determination to improve relations with India.

India has seven times Pakistan’s population and a booming economy, and it long ago lost its obsession with the agonies of Partition in 1947 and the three wars with Pakistan that followed. But the Pakistan army continues to be obsessed with the “threat” from India – in large part because that justifies its taking the lion’s share of the national budget. If Nawaz could fix Pakistan’s relations with India, a lot of his other dilemmas would also be solved.

In each of his previous terms, he tried very hard to make peace with India, but was thwarted both times by the Pakistani army. The current military chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to retire at the end of this year (after a three-year extension in office), and this will give Nawaz a chance to replace him with someone less committed to perpetual confrontation with India. Then many things would become possible.

An end to the military confrontation would open the door to large-scale Indian investment in Pakistan (including pipelines bringing oil and gas from Iran and Central Asia). It would let Pakistan cut the military budget down to size. And it would end the army’s tacit support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is all about ensuring that Pakistan has a friendly government in Kabul to give it “strategic depth” in its long cold war with India.

The Taliban will inevitably be part of any post-occupation government in Afghanistan, but without Pakistani support they will have to strike a deal with other forces rather than just taking over. That outcome would greatly mollify Washington and make it easier for Islamabad to get new loans from the World Bank and the IMF. It would also make it easier for the government to negotiate some kind of domestic peace settlement with the Pakistani Taliban.

Then, maybe, Nawaz could finally get the Pakistani economy back on track. It’s a long string of ifs, but nobody else on the Pakistani political scene seems to have a better plan.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“India…solved”)

 

 

“Double Tap”

26 September 2012

“Double Tap”

By Gwynne Dyer

“Double Tap” is what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.

Then there’s a different, nastier kind of “double tap”. Suppose you live in some hill village in western Pakistan, and one of the families nearby has a boy fighting with the Taliban who has come home for a visit, bringing several friends with him. It’s worrisome, because you are always hearing American drones overhead – and sure enough, one day there is a terrifying explosion and his house is destroyed.

What do you do now? There was a whole extended family living in that house: children, old folks, a cousin or two. Some of them are probably still alive under the rubble, perhaps badly injured. Do you rush over and help to dig them out? Better not. The Predator or Reaper drone (lovely names) will wait until all the neighbours have gathered round, and then launch a second Hellfire missile onto the site. Double tap.

“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahbad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents the victims of drone strikes, told “The Independent” newspaper recently. “In the past it used to be a one-off, now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic have just released a report, based on nine months of research and 130 interviews, which concludes that barely 2 percent of the victims of US drone strikes were known militants. That’s not to say that everybody else killed or injured was an innocent civilian, but these are definitely not “surgical” strikes.

The best estimate of the number of people killed in US drone strikes over the past eight years comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: between 2,532 and 3,251 dead in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, between 475 and 879 deaths were civilian non-combatants who just happened to be nearby when the Hellfire hit – often because they were trying to rescue survivors from an earlier strike.

The Stanford/New York University study, entitled “Living Under Drones”, describes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s database as “far more reliable than other aggregating sources,” based on a far wider range of sources than other comparable studies. And of course there are no official numbers. The US government doesn’t even try to count the casualties.

Washington doesn’t formally admit that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a remote-control assassination programme at all, because it is legally a very doubtful area. At the same time, it strives to reassure the American public that there is almost no “collateral damage”: that practically all the victims are “bad guys”. Including the 175 children who, according to the Bureau’s numbers, have been killed in the strikes.

Let’s be honest here: children always get killed in air strikes. When you explode 10 kg (20 lbs) of high explosives on a single target (the standard Hellfire load), there can be nothing surgical about it. The really questionable aspects of the CIA’s drone programme lie elsewhere.

First, is it legal to make air attacks in a country that you are not at war with? Second, can you distinguish sufficiently between “militants” and civilians living in the same area? And, above all, why are you making double-tap attacks?

The legal question is particularly problematic in Pakistan, where the government has not authorised the United States to carry out attacks. Islamabad tacitly accepts them, but sometimes public opinion forces it to respond vigorously, as when an American missile killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year. That blunder also highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between “militants” and civilians through the lens of a remote-controlled camera.

It’s the double-tap attacks that are truly shameful. Do the controllers really think that the people rushing to rescue the survivors of a first strike are all “militants” too? Or are they just trying to deter people from helping those who were wounded in the first strike? That is certainly the effect of the policy: villagers now often leave the injured survivors of an attack in agony for hours before going to help them, for fear of becoming victims too.

There’s no point in telling the military and their masters that this tactic is counter-productive, generating more new “militants” than it kills. The bureaucratic machine doesn’t respond to such subtle arguments. There’s probably no point in talking about the moral problem of killing innocent people either. But the fact that some fifty countries now have drones should inspire a little reflection about this unwritten change in the rules of engagement.

The latest proud possessor of these weapons is Iran, which has just unveiled a new drone with a range of 2,000 km (1,300 mi), capable of flying over most of the Middle East. If it is really copied from the US drone that Iran captured last year, then it has major air-to-ground capabilities. So what if it starts using those capabilities over, say, Syria, against the rebels that the Syrian government calls “terrorists”?

The US could not really complain (though no doubt it would). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 11. (“These strikes…it”; “The Stanford…casualties”; and “The legal…camera”)

 

Blasphemy in Pakistan

10 September 2012

Blasphemy in Pakistan

By Gwynne Dyer

It was a welcome change from the usual dreary story: a Christian or a Hindu Pakistani accused of blasphemy on flimsy grounds, tried, and sentenced to prison – or found innocent, set free and then murdered by some Muslim fanatic. This time was different.

The victim this time was a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsa Masih, who is believed to suffer from Down’s syndrome. She was stopped by a young Muslim man who found the half-burned remnants of a book that allegedly included verses from the Quran in her carrier bag. He told the local imam, who called the police, and she was arrested.

This kind of story usually ends badly in Pakistan. Two years ago, for example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was arrested for insulting the Prophet Mohammad while arguing with fellow farm-workers. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but it was such a manifest injustice that the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, publicly called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January, 2011.

The bodyguard was tried for murder and convicted, but he was treated as a hero by many Pakistanis, and the judge who sent him to prison had to flee the country. Two months later the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot dead when he spoke out against the blasphemy laws. Since then, almost nobody has dared to criticise them.

Asia Bibi remains in prison awaiting execution. Her entire family, including her five children, live in hiding and cannot work or go to school. And while the higher courts would once have thrown out her conviction – they have overturned hundreds of sentences for blasphemy imposed by lower courts that were too vulnerable to local pressures – she can no longer even be confident of that.

So the outlook seemed grim for Rimsa Masih when she was arrested last month – but then the imam who had called the police, Hafiz Mohammad Khalid Chisti, was arrested for doctoring the evidence. His own deputy had seen him adding pages from the Quran to the young Christian’s bag.

“I asked him what he was doing,” the deputy told a television station, “and he said this is the evidence against them (the local Christians) and this is how we can get them out from this area.” Two other witnesses came forward against Chisti, and Hafiz Mohammad Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of senior Muslim clerics, declared that “Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chisti did.”

Ashrafi added that Chisti was acting on behalf of a group who wanted to drive out the Christian minority in the area: “I have known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasa (on their land).” They have already succeeded: some 300 Christian families have fled in fear for their lives, and they probably won’t be back. But at least the state is starting to defy the fanatics.

Bail is not normally granted in blasphemy cases, but on 8 September Rimsa Masih was freed on bail, and a military helicopter lifted her out of the prison yard and into hiding. And Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony, whose brother and predecessor Shahbaz was murdered last year, broke a political taboo by explaining why ordinary Pakistanis are more hostile to the religious minorities in their midst than most Muslims elsewhere.

“It is not just a religious problem,” Bhatti said. “It’s a caste factor, because (the victims) belong to the poorest and most marginalised people. Unfortunately they are Christians, and this caste system creates lots of problems.”

Islam teaches the equality of all believers, but the caste system is alive and kicking in Pakistan. Go far enough back, and almost all Pakistani Muslims are descended from Hindus – and when those Hindu communities converted to Islam, they retained their ideas and prejudices about caste.

This was particularly disheartening for groups at the bottom of the caste pecking order who had hoped that Islam would free them. When the British empire arrived in the area, therefore, it was the poorest and most despised section of the population who converted to Christianity.

So everybody knows that most Christians are really “untouchables.” The argument that got Asia Bibi in trouble, for example, broke out when some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water she had fetched because Christians were “unclean”.

The Hindu minority is mostly just as low-caste as the Christians, and equally vulnerable. Together they are only 6 million out of 187 million Pakistanis, but they account for the vast majority of blasphemy accusations. In many cases, these accusations are merely a convenient weapon for Muslims engaged in land disputes and other quarrels with members of the minority groups.

Maybe the Pakistani government has finally found the nerve to deal with this corrupt law and to protect its victims. The Rimsa Masih case is a hopeful sign. But Pakistan still has a long way to go before all of its citizens are really equal under the law.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Asia…that”; and “Ashrafi…fanatics”)