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Economist, Detainee Discuss 'Emergency' in Pakistan

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a flood of recalls may have you worrying about lead paint in your children's toys, but have ever thought about the people who make those toys? We'll talk to our reporter who has uncovered the toxic conditions for Chinese workers who make many of these products for Americans. That's next.

But first, just about every week at this time, we bring you news of the world outside the U.S. Last week, Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, imposed emergency rule in his country.

He has suspended the constitution and fired the Supreme Court. Media coverage has been suppressed. Thousands of people have been detained or put under house arrest. This morning President Musharraf announced that national elections will take place early next year.

We wanted to hear from people in the middle of the crises. Joining us are Zehra Aftab, an economist in Islamabad, and Ali. He's a university professor from Lahore. We are not revealing Ali's last name for his safety as he was recently detained and spent two nights in jail with 54 other civil leaders.

Welcome, and thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ZEHRA AFTAB (Economist, Islamabad): Thank you, Michel.

ALI (University Professor, Lahore): Thank you.

MARTIN: And Ali, why don't you start? Would you tell us what happened? You were attending a meeting in Lahore when a police came in and then took all of you to jail. Did they give you any reason?

ALI: Well, actually, what happened was the night after the PCO was passed, the Human Rights Commission sent out an SMS(ph) inviting people for the meeting to discuss the modalities of what was going on and to discuss what, sort of, (unintelligible) activists and professionals and other smaller(ph) people could do.

So a group of professionals, educationalists, academics, activists, some lawyers and, sort of other members of the civil society gathered inside the Human Rights Commission in the hall, and all that they were engaged in - and I want to stress this - at that particular point in time, was a discussion - a discussion pertaining to what had happened and what would be the possibilities in the future that could be exercised.

And while that discussion was going on, we were suddenly surrounded by the police. And for every person who was inside the hall, there were at least three policemen outside. And the police, in a very (unintelligible) and a very civilized way they, sort of, came in and they said that they are going to arrest us. Some people gave themselves up for the arrest immediately. Other people, sort of resisted arrest, and they were ruffled up quite a bit. And the next thing we knew, we were in a (unintelligible) jail in custody.

MARTIN: What - did they give you a reason?

ALI: Now, after that, we weren't charged for almost I think 24 hours or 26 hours.

MARTIN: You were not charged for 24 or 26 hours. Is that in violation of the law as you understand it? If you are to be charged with something, are you supposed to be charged immediately? Or is that the custom?

ALI: Well, I mean, that's the interesting question - under which law. I'm not sure whether under the PCO. We - I mean, there is some limitation, but yes, under sort of the constitutional regime, I believe there is a restriction that they have to charge us within 24 hours.

MARTIN: Did they give you any reason for your arrest? What was the reason given when the police said they were going to arrest you? Did they give you any reason?

ALI: The fact was that the police was completely shocked. I've seen the information reports that was sent to the police which basically portrayed this as the start of a very violent agitation being led by, sort of, agitators and so on and so forth.

Then the other thing is that there was, apparently, a lot of anger in upper administration that this group of people, among who - there were a lot of prominent people, I may add, from civil society - that they had gone there on behalf of Ms. Asma Jahangir who is the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission. I mean, it was almost also this personal campaign against the chairperson that was constantly being said back to us.

MARTIN: And what were the conditions in the prison - or the jail, rather?

ALI: We were kept - I have to be very honest - fairly well - I mean, in the sense that the worst that we got was a lot of time that we spent in police busses, being shifted from station to station and that was a hard part of it. In (unintelligible) station, we weren't, sort of, put in lock up. We were allowed to remain in corridors. Then we were placed in house arrest, and, you know, we were at some private citizen's home who had very kindly volunteered to have his home declared as a (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Zehra, how are you? And what are you doing now? How are things in Islamabad?

Ms. AFTAB: And I'm actually on my to Adiyala(ph) jail. They did arrested a friend of ours this afternoon. There was a protest of lawyers and students and basically all of civil society this afternoon.

And they arrested her and by the time they got to the police station, they've all ready moved her to Adiyala jail so now we are on our way there. And I'm a bit concerned because it was a nonviolent protest. I mean, we just - we (unintelligible) people, you know, enlighten people. I don't know why they're doing this. And the friend of mine who's been arrested is a lawyer, but she was protesting as a citizen because our fundamental rights have been suspended.

MARTIN: Why do you believe this is happening? Why do you believe that people like your friend and like Ali have been detained by the authorities? What do you believe is the purpose?

Ms. AFTAB: I guess to make sure that we don't (unintelligible) to come the protest, but we feel that if the (unintelligible) forces are (unintelligible) out like this, they'll leave a gap for the extremists. And the extremists will eventually monopolize the dialogues.

So we strongly believe that they should let moderate, nonviolent people like us protest in a nonviolent manner. We want our fundamental rights back. They have suspended the right of expression, the right of movements, the freedom of association, equality of citizens, everything has been suspended. And we are conscious(ph) citizens, how can we just sit back and let the government do this.

MARTIN: How are you able to find out things like the fact that your friend has been detained and where people are and to just to gather to begin with? How are you even able to communicate these things given that there is so much of communication has been suppressed?

Ms. AFTAB: No, we have a network of friends, and all citizens are trying to network with each other so that is how. I just happened to call another lawyer friend, and she told me. And the thing is I was supposed to be in the protest with her yesterday, but what is going on is that they have these flash protests.

They're short and sweet. We go, we protest. For instance, there's a ban going on at 6 o'clock today. So we go, we protest, we quickly make our point and then we disperse. The idea is that, you know, many different protests and the message gets across and we dispersed in time before they arrest us.

MARTIN: Are you afraid for your safety, Zehra?

Ms. AFTAB: Not really for my safety, but yes, I am concerned for my friend's safety. And I don't want anyone misbehaving with her. I mean, it's comforting to hear from Ali that the police was kind with them. But, you know, generally in a culture like Pakistan, they do not arrest women, and this is just really unfortunate what they've done with my friend.

ALI: I'd actually like to pick up on that point.

MARTIN: Ali.

ALI: We were 55 people arrested. There were 24 women. A lot of that women were also, sort of, much older women. We had four or five people who look like unwell.

There was a leading lawyer who had a pacemaker, and it took people almost about 12 hours to have him shifted to a health facility. And again I may add, that these are very prominent people.

I also want to pick up on one other point that would made, which is that a lot of protests are nonviolent. So the notion that this is a violent bunch of hooligans who are creating a law and order problem is a complete misperception. You know, I'm standing at the university where basically students had been protesting for the past two days. We have been given very clear instructions that the (unintelligible) the police is going to move inside the university. These are the kind of condition of civil liberties in Pakistan at this particular point.

MARTIN: What is the daily life there? And are people continuing to go to work, to go - to open the shops? Are students continuing to go to school? What - how - what are people doing day to day?

ALI: You see, you have a very clear choice, Michel. I mean, you can either become completely non-political, and life is very good. If I tomorrow decide that all I'm going to do is go to my office, dispense with my work, go home, do my daily activities, nothing is going to be a problem. But if I want to stand up for my own rights in a nonviolent, peaceful manner, then I am confronted with a complete police state.

MARTIN: How are your colleagues, Ali? What choice do you think most of your colleagues are making? Do you think - I know it's a hard question to assess, but if you were to consider all the people at the university where you work, how do you think they come out? Do you think that most of them believe as you do that this is a critical point of decision, or do you think most of them feel, well, perhaps, this is just a momentary, you know, pause, and that at some point, you know, elections will be held and that they should just, kind of, keep their heads down and wait it out?

ALI: I belong to an elite university, which has been very political. And, you know, the kind of sense of frustration and the fact that such a big wrong has been committed to the constitution and the judiciary is very strong among students and faculty, a majority of faculty. People are highly incensed by what has taken place. But what all people want to do is (unintelligible) this. Well, that's basically what's going on.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Zehra, any final thought from you? How is the - same question to you. Do you feel that most of your colleagues feel that this is a critical moment in the life of the country, or do you think that, you know, most people feel that this is just sort of a temporary crisis, and this, too, shall pass?

Ms. AFTAB: No, I think this is very unfortunate as we're all very concerned especially the fact that under the new PCO, the more pliant judges has taken oath while the more resistant ones are left out of the system. So, in the long term, this will have terrible repercussions for the autonomy of the judiciary and for the character of the judiciary. And other than that, I think this will turn Islamabad into this city of containers and barbed wires, where the constitution that we knew is blocked for the general public. So no one is happy with the situation, but you have to realize that we're a nation, and not everyone can go out, and you know, leave their work and protest.

MARTIN: And Zehra, finally, do you believe that General Musharraf will hold parliamentary elections in January as he has said?

Ms. AFTAB: Well, I hope he does.

MARTIN: I see. Zehra Aftab is an economist. She joined us on the phone from Islamabad. We were also joined by Ali. He's an economics professor and we are disguising his last name for his safety. He joined us on the phone from Lahore.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. AFTAB: Thank you so much. Thank you.

ALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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