By Rajeev Sharma
Known for ruthlessly targeting those it finds troublesome, Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) begins by warning its potential victims by issuing threats. If they mend their ways, fine. If not, they are eliminated.
This happened to journalist Saleem Shahzad whose probing of the attack on key naval establishment, PNS Mehran, and writing reports of the involvement of naval personnel in the attack conducted by the Tehrik Taliban Afghanistan (TTP), led to his death. Shahzad had ignored several warnings and had continued to write his reports. They were published, among other places, in the Asia Online of Hong Kong. He went missing and even as ISI denied any involvement, his body was found in a village hundreds of miles away from his home. Protests against ISI go un-heeded in Pakistan. People have rarely gone to court, but have never won conviction.
Pakistan’s top rights activist Asma Jahangir has become the latest target. She has added to the feeling of fear in the country by speaking out about a plot to murder her. She said on June 4 that she has reason to believe the scheme “is not an invention of an individual mind but a conspiracy whose origins can be traced to security operators of the state.” She said: “I received an information leak that an assassination was sanctioned and planned. “I was made aware that my travel plans had been under surveillance for some time. It is very obvious to me that it would be the ISI pulling the strings.”
She has not named ISI, but the allusion is obvious. The agency has not liked her speaking out on the human rights conditions in Balochistan. This is at a time when Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, to soften the blow of the army’s relentless campaign against the Baloch rebels, has been promising measures to bring Balochistan into “national mainstream.”
Jahangir also recently defended Pakistan’s controversial former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. He was accused of being behind a mysterious memo, sent to the Obama administration, asking for help to prevent a military coup after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May last year. Human rights activists, lawyers and journalists are frequently murdered in Pakistan – especially when their investigations or work impinges on the interests of powerful groups. Asma Jahangir did consider leaving the country when she heard about the alleged plans for the “murderous attack” but has decided it is not an option. “I have seen more frightening times than this. Unfortunately we get numb to the signs of danger in Pakistan because we see so much of it around us,” she said.
Alarm bells have rung at the allegation made by Asma Jahangir. Dawn newspaper commented editorially: “Ms Jahangir is respected the world over for taking tough positions in the most trying conditions and reporting on difficult situations at considerable personal risk. As a lawyer she has stood by the principle that every accused has the right to defence in court. Hers has been a journey replete with many dangers, but she is not known for raising too many alarms about her personal safety. That she has done so now is significant and cannot be ignored or speculated upon. This is a serious enough charge for the authorities to undertake an investigation, and an urgent one.”
The Gilani Government is silent. So is the ISI that has made no comment. Political parties including the Jamaat-i-Islami, MQM, PML-N, PTI and PPP have all slammed the reported threats to Ms Jahangir as have members of civil society.
Summing up the role the ISI plays in Pakistan, David Rhodes, a columnist of Reuters wrote last year: “Dominated by hard-line ultra-nationalists obsessed with defeating archrival India, the ISI has killed Pakistani journalists who openly criticize it, harassed human rights activists and undermined efforts to establish democracy. A shadow government unaccountable to the country’s weak civilian government, the ISI is widely feared by Pakistanis.” “More ultranationalists than jihadists, ISI officers believe they are the true guardians of Pakistan,” he wrote.
For ISI and those close to it, Asma is special. Because of her frequent visits to India, she is labeled many things ‘Indian’ – the best way to give any Pakistani a bad name. Among other things, she has been called “Indian puppy”, “darling of Delhi establishment” and is shown with Indian leaders Pakistanis love to hate, like Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Incidentally, she has never met them.
A report in daily Dawn said: “But this is not just about the safety of one person, however valuable she is to the causes she has been pursuing and the people to whom she has given a voice. Ultimately, it is about pluralism and safeguarding the dissent that is vital to all human endeavours. “Ms Jahangir vows the progressives in this country shall continue to fight. It will be tragic if those who are opposed to her creed resorted to violence instead of committing themselves fully and infallibly to the interplay between thesis and anti-thesis for forward movement,” the newspaper said.
This is not the first time that Asma Jahangir has been threatened. Asma, the founder of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the first woman to lead the Supreme Court Bar Association, has received repeated threats for raising the issue of corruption in the legal arena. But her talking of Balochistan’s situation, Pakistani media reports say, has irked the intelligence establishment.
Major human rights groups called on Pakistan to protect prominent lawyer Asma Jahangir and investigate allegations that the military and intelligence agencies have plotted to kill her. Asma has pursued human rights cases at home and abroad for more than 30 years. “Pakistani authorities should urgently and thoroughly investigate the alleged plot against Asma Jahangir and hold all those responsible to account, regardless of position or rank,” Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, on an official visit to Pakistan, visited Asma in her home in Lahore on June 6 “to discuss this alarming development and show her support”, her office said. HRW and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said Asma had been a critic of the military’s policies in the insurgency-hit province of Balochistan and its alleged violations there, including killings, forced disappearances and torture. “Asma Jahangir has fought tirelessly as a member of the legal profession to protect human rights in Pakistan and around the world, at considerable peril to herself,” Wilder Tayler, ICJ’s secretary general, said in a statement. “So when she speaks publicly of a credible threat, the government of Pakistan should take it very seriously and ensure that she is protected,” he said.
Asma Jahangir served as UN special investigator on extra-judicial executions and later as UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief during 1998 to 2010, reporting on violations worldwide to the UN Human Rights Council. In recent months, Asma has “been at odds with the Pakistani military in a series of high profile stand-offs”, HRW noted.
In a significant commentary on the human rights conditions following the visit of Catherine Ashton, European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Lahore-published The Daily Times said on June 7: “Ashton clearly told Gilani that unless Pakistan improves governance and the human and labour rights environment, no progress in the relations between the EU and Pakistan would be possible. She stressed that democracy without the rule of law, accountability and protection of human lives has little value. Our seeming indifference to human rights will end up making Pakistan pay. The situation of human rights is getting worse in Pakistan with each passing day. The entire country is engulfed in target killings, disappearances, abduction for ransom, honour killings and political victimisation. The informal economy has outpaced the real one owing to a difficult business environment and weak labour laws. Finding a gun, hand grenade or rocket launcher is easier than finding a job. No matter how loud Pakistan cries about its sacrifices in the war on terror, unless there is proof that Pakistan has learnt the lessons and is doing all in its capacity to turn the human rights situation round, favours and concessions from the EU are unlikely.”
“The stress on human rights by the EU,” The newspaper’s editorial noted, “has its parallel in the demands the US has been making on Pakistan to change its policy and stop supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s insistence on continuing with its dual policy for some later victory could prove dangerous for us. “Ashton’s visit is a reminder to Pakistan that the days of ‘window dressing’ are over,” the newspaper said.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst.)