Political and Internal Developments
The Supreme Court of Pakistan formally indicted Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on charges of committing contempt of court by not implementing a particular paragraph of the NRO judgment which directed the government to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen a money laundering case against President Asif Zardari. Apart from a two week breather given to the PM before the next hearing in the contempt case, the only other silver lining was that the indictment did not charge him with ‘ridiculing the judiciary’, which would have entailed a five year disqualification from becoming a member of any legislative assembly. With the pressing of formal charges against a sitting PM, Pakistan is breaking dangerous new constitutional and legal ground which, given Pakistani genius for mutilating constitutional and legal provisions, could become a precursor for sacking political governments in the future.
As things stand, there is no clarity either on how the case will proceed (will it be settled in days or will it take weeks, maybe even months)? Nor is there clarity on the political and legal implications of convicting a PM on contempt charges. Will Gilani have to resign or can he stay in office if the President pardons him – in an interview to Al Jazeera last week he said that if convicted he would no longer remain a Member of Parliament and would therefore lose his office automatically, but legal experts hold a different view; will a presidential pardon also wipe out his conviction? If he is convicted then does he automatically not remain the PM? If so, won’t this create a constitutional vacuum because Pakistan will be without a PM until Gilani’s replacement is chosen? What role will the Speaker of the National Assembly play? Can the Supreme Court order the Speaker to follow a certain course of action, something that will constitute an encroachment into the sphere of the legislature?
These and many other such constitutional issues are likely to be thrown up as the contempt case reaches its conclusion. And then there is the all important issue of what course of action will be taken by Gilani’s successor? What if he tows the same line as Gilani and refuses to write to the Swiss authorities? Will another PM then be sacked by the Supreme Court? And if in the interregnum, a neutral and independent caretaker government is appointed, will it defy the Supreme Court or will it write the contentious letter? If it is the latter then what is the point of the whole defiance at this point in time because all that the defiance is doing is buying a few months for President Asif Zardari? Unless of course these few months are critical since the Swiss cases will get time barred under the statute of limitations by then. But nobody can say with any certainty as to when the statute of limitation kicks in? Is it April 2012, or is it September 2012 or even later.
Regardless of how the contempt case proceeds, Prime Minister Gilani and the ruling PPP would have certainly felt reassured by the support they received from its allies, especially the ANP and PMLQ. Not only did the alliance partners back the government’s stand, they also agreed that if Gilani was forced out, his replacement would be from the PPP. Gilani’s stock within the PPP and among supporters and sympathisers of the government has soared and he is being seen as a martyr or a victim of the judiciary’s high-handedness and one-sided accountability. But detractors of the government see Gilani as a villain for refusing to implement the Supreme Court directive. While PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif has said that Gilani is being made a scapegoat to protect Zardari, the PPP supporters think that Gilani is being made a scapegoat by the judiciary to target Zardari.
Despite sniping at each other over a range of issues, including the government’s defiance of the Supreme Court verdict on the NRO case, the PPP and PMLN displayed remarkable flexibility, accommodation and political sagacity by successfully negotiating the 20th Constitution Amendment bill which was passed unanimously by the National Assembly last week. The political deal between the government and opposition was in large measure prompted by the fear of and aversion for any possible military or non-political intervention in the electoral process, something that the PM acknowledged after the passage of the bill when he said that there would no longer be any imported caretaker PM in the country. The latest constitutional amendment not only provides legal cover to the election of 28 lawmakers whose membership is currently under suspension but also makes far-reaching changes in the method of selection of an independent Election Commission and a neutral Caretaker Government for holding elections. Under the new method, the President’s virtual discretion to appoint the caretaker government has been done away with. Henceforth, the caretaker PM will be decided through consultations between the PM and leader of opposition. If they disagree, then a commission comprising of four members each from the treasury and opposition benches will be asked to decide in three days from a list of nominees forwarded to them by the PM and opposition leader. If the commission also cannot arrive at a decision, then the Election Commission will decide the matter within two days. As far as the EC is concerned, the members will have a five year term and have been given the same protection as Supreme Court judges in the matter of removal from their posts.
The reverberations of the US Congressional sub-committee hearing on Balochistan rocked the Pakistani establishment last week and brought Pakistan ‘dirty war’ in Balochistan which no one was interested in talking about right on to the centre-stage. While most people reacted with a lot of fury to what they saw as interference in Pakistan's internal affairs – the National Assembly passed a resolution condemning the US Congressional hearing – there was also a little introspection over the brutal and shabby treatment meted out to the Baloch by the Pakistani state.
Despite Pakistan’s ambassador to the US calling the Congressional hearing an ‘ill-advised and ill-considered move that would have serious repercussions for US-Pakistan relations’, an unrepentant US ambassador to Pakistan said that there was no doubt that human rights abuses were rampant in Balochistan and that it was an important issue for the US to discuss with Pakistan. Cameron Munter however did add that the US wouldn’t go beyond discussing the issue and had no intention of destabilising Pakistan. Munter’s remarks served as fuel to fire and the Pakistan foreign office summoned the officiating ambassador to convey the displeasure of the government.
The furore seemed to force the Baloch lawmakers (almost all of them collaborators of the Pakistani establishment) in the National Assembly and Senate to raise their voice and warn that if the death squads carried on with their grisly business and the security services continued with their ham-handed brutality against the Baloch, the situation which has already reached a point of no return could easily tip over. Despite paying lip-service to the injustices done to the Baloch, the Pakistani state responded with denials. Interior Minister Rehman Malik gave a clean chit to the FC and the army for the murder of Baloch activists and blamed the violence and killings on the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’. He even had the temerity of saying that the bullets that killed the wife and daughter of a Baloch MPA (who were the sister and niece of the Baloch nationalist leader Brahmdagh Bugti) were not made in Pakistan! Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani was equally disingenuous in flatly denying that any military operation was taking place in Balochistan and glibly maintaining that the FC (which is officered by the Pakistan Army) was only deployed in ‘aid of civilian administration’. This, when no less than the governor and chief minister, not to mention the provincial government counsel in the Supreme Court, have said that the security services never bothered to listen to the civilian government. The deteriorating situation in the province has however given rise to a blame game between the civilians and the military. While political leaders who are not holding any official position have blamed the security agencies for the violence, the military establishment in a background briefing has shoved the blame on to the civilian heads pointing fingers at the administrative mismanagement and political failure.
Prime Minister Gilani meanwhile has said that he intends to call an All Party Conference to discuss the Balochistan issue. But hardly anyone has attached any hopes from this proposed APC which it appears has resulted after a meeting of the PM with the Army and ISI chiefs. The fact that the PM has reduced the Balochistan problem as being merely a ‘problem of lawlessness and missing persons’ is a clear sign of not only a misreading of the gravity of the situation but also the unrealistic and unconstructive approach that the government is likely to adopt in trying to resolve the issue.
Almost as though the state sponsored death squads were cocking a snook at the outrage over the human rights abuses, the body of a top activist of the Balochistan Republican Party was found dumped on the roadside in Turbat, mutilated and with around 30 bullet wounds. The killing prompted a province wide shutdown for three days. If the Pakistani establishment thought that the killings of political activists would snuff out the Baloch freedom struggle, then clearly they have another thought coming. Coupled with the renewed international interest in Balochistan, the actions’ of Pakistani death squads has only firmed the resolve of the Baloch. Thus it is that while political leaders like BNP chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal and others have welcomed the US Congressional hearings, other nationalist leaders who are spearheading the struggle are getting together to give the Baloch movement a sense of unity and purpose. Last week, Hyrbyiar Marri met Brahmdagh Bugti in Geneva and discussed with him a proposed Freedom Charter which could become the lodestone around which the Baloch could coalesce and forge a united movement for independence.
Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Human Rights has asked the judiciary to fix responsibility for the disappearances of political activists and discovery of their bullet ridden and tortured bodies which are found dumped on the roadside in Balochistan. But given the sorry record of Pakistan’s ‘independent’ judiciary in taking the security services to task on the issue of disappeared and missing persons despite overwhelming evidence of the involvement of intelligence agencies like ISI and MI, the judiciary is probably going to talk tough but is unlikely to take any material step to stop the death squads. Last week, this became clear in the case of the seven missing persons who were produced before the court. The alleged terrorists were described as walking corpses by the media, which gave details of the torture these men underwent in custody of the intelligence agencies. The human tragedy of the missing persons case gained further prominence after the mother of two of the accused terrorists died of a heart-attack – media headlines termed it a heart-break – on the night after she met her two sons who were severely tortured. The lady who was also the main petitioner in the Habeus Corpus appeal had already lost one of her sons who had died in custody of the intelligence agencies. During the hearing the court passed some rather strong remarks against the security services and has issued notices to civil and military officials seeking detailed replies on the cause of death of four of the missing persons, the laws under which the men were held and tried, their medical condition, their living conditions etc.
While on the one hand the Pakistani security establishment is merciless with those alleged terrorists whom it considers as a threat to the state, on the other hand it has not only struck peace deals with terror groups that are targeting countries like India, Afghanistan and US but has also allowed some of these groups to operate publicly. Thus it is that despite the resumption of drone attacks by the Americans – last week a top Al Qaeda member from Pakistan’s Punjab province, Badr Mansoor, was killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan – the five member Shura-e-Muraqiba comprising the Haqqani network, two factions of TTP, and the Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur group – announced that it was going to abide by the peace agreement it had stuck with the Pakistan army way back in 2007 and not only condemned but also forbid any attack on Pakistani troops in terror central, North Waziristan. On the other hand, despite a report by an unnamed intelligence agency asking the law enforcement agencies to keep a tight watch on terror groups like the Jamaatud Dawa and emerging terror outfits like Sunni Tehrik to prevent them from becoming ‘pressure groups, these outfits are operating pretty much without any let or hindrance with alleged state patronage.
A prime example of this double game was the latest Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) rally, this one in Karachi. Ostensibly the rally was organised (with full police protection!) by the Jamaat Islami (which has practically functioned as the political face of the Al Qaeda) but the real force behind the rally was the terrorist organisation Jamaatud Dawa. Along with these two outfits, some three dozen other terrorist, extremist, reactionary Islamist parties like Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ), which is the latest incarnation of the Sunni extremist organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), came together to threaten jihad against India and US. The ‘independent’ Pakistani media, which normally is quite blasé about the DPC, got a taste of things to come when a JuD member openly threatened to turn the rally venue into a graveyard for the media if it did not give extensive coverage to the rally. A representative of Imran Khan’s party called for ‘cleansing’ Pakistan of America and a leader of a hard-line breakaway faction of the JUI in Balochistan demanded a Taliban type system in Pakistan. The JuD’s Ameer Hamza declared that the rally participants would one day make ‘mincemeat’ of India. The DPC chairman Maulana Samiul Haq announced that this new umbrella organisation would support the Kashmiri terrorists in all possible ways (basically referring to spreading terrorism in the Indian state) and warned that the Parliament would be besieged if the government reopened NATO supply lines through Pakistan. Also on target was the tentative steps by the government of Pakistan to grant MFN status to India. Interestingly, it seems that while the threats of the DPC have worked in India’s case – the government has backed off from moving from a positive list of tradable items to a negative list – they don’t seem to have worked in the case of the NATO supply routes, which according to reports are likely to reopen very soon.
Foreign Relations / Foreign Policy
The US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter caused a storm in a tea cup last week when he merely admitted something that everyone knew in any case but no one said it quite as openly which was that the US and ISAF forces were using Pakistan's airspace to provide supplies to their troops. In fact some time back Prime Minister Gilani had admitted the same thing when in an interview he had said that Pakistan had still not blocked its airspace for NATO supplies. Needless to say, the reaction inside Pakistan was typical knee-jerk with howls of protest over what was called reopening of supply lines without the permission of Parliament which was still to deliberate over the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) on the future terms of engagement between the US and Pakistan. Making matters worse for the government was a foot-in-mouth statement of the defence minister – incidentally Pakistan's defence minister is effectively only the minister for civil aviation and has little to do insofar as defence policy is concerned – who said that only humanitarian supplies were going through air and this was also a facility that had been permitted for a limited time in order to prevent perishable goods from going bad.
The US administration is meanwhile reported to be leaning on the Pakistanis to reopen the supply routes and to speed up the debate in parliament to get the fig-leaf that the Pakistan government wants to restart the logistics lines. Interestingly, according to one report, the Russians and the Chinese are believed to be ‘encouraging’ the Pakistanis to not lift the blockade and are promising to support Pakistan if it goes down this path. The Pakistan army on the other hand has publicly at least adopted a hands-off approach from taking a decision on the supply lines and the army chief has said that this issue will be decided by the parliament. Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani has also indicated that border coordination between the ISAF and Pakistani security forces has improved and that the latter are taken into confidence by the former before an attack is launched near the Pak-Afghan border.
Meanwhile, in a lecture at Harvard University, Cameron Munter has said that US-Pakistan relations need to adopt as an anthem the line from a Tina Turner song ‘what’s love got to do with it’. Munter said that while Pakistani politicians want the Americans to stay on in Pakistan, and relations between the CIA and ISI were cooperative, the real problem was between Pentagon and the GHQ in Rawalpindi. He expressed some concern that the CIA-ISI relations could undergo a change for the worse after the current ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha retires in mid-March. Whether Munter was giving Pasha a kiss of death by publicly saying that he was good for the US is something that is not quite clear.
India’s oft expressed complaint to the US that the hi-tech weapon systems like F16 jets are primarily going to be used against India and not in the war on terror was endorsed by none other than the Pakistan army and air chiefs last week. Talking to journalists during a tour of the Jacobabad airbase, the Gen Kayani and Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman said that the latest model F16 aircraft that have been inducted into the PAF would not be used in anti-terror operations.
The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse visited Islamabad last week. The two countries stressed on the need for greater connectivity between them and resolved to raise their bilateral trade from around $ 375 million to $ 2 billion in the next three years. In this context, President Asif Zardari proposed setting up of direct shipping links and also entering into a currency swap agreement. The Pakistanis assured the Lankans of continued support in the field of defence and security. The Lankans are considering a Pakistani proposal to provide training to their intelligence and police personnel, something that should cause serious concern in India. Three MoUs were signed during the visit: one, a $ 200 million credit line extended by Pakistan to Sri Lanka for import of machinery and equipment; two, on providing technical training in a number of vocational areas; and three, exchange of news reports, programmes and publications on history, culture and literature to deepen the relations between the peoples of the two countries.
Relations with India
Despite all the fanfare and high-sounding statements that accompanied the visit of the Indian commerce minister Anand Sharma to Pakistan for ushering in a new era in trade relations between the two countries, the portents were not good. Reports in the Pakistani press on the eve of Sharma’s visit had made it clear that there was a lot of resistance from trade organisations, ministries like textile and interior and most of all from the ‘establishment’ to liberalising trade with India. Not surprisingly then, the Pakistanis have for the moment at least backed away from their commitment to scrap the positive list and conduct trade on the basis of a negative list which would finally be done away with to grant India MFN status.
In what was clearly a rebuff to the visiting Indian minister, just a day before his arrival in Islamabad, the Pakistani federal cabinet rejected a summary forwarded by the commerce ministry which listed 636 items that would be placed on the negative list and which would be phased out by the end of the current calendar year. The list was rejected on the specious argument that the commerce ministry had not adequately consulted all the stakeholders. But no sooner had this been done, the Pakistanis realised the diplomatic faux pas and tried to make up by assuring the Indian side that the list would be finalised at the next cabinet meeting by the end of February.
Three agreements were also signed during Sharma’s visit: Customs Cooperation Agreement to avoid arbitrary stoppage of goods at each other’s ports, Mutual Recognition Agreement that provides for acceptance of certificates of internationally accredited laboratories and Redressal of Trade Grievance Agreement to provide for a mechanism to resolve transaction disputes . These agreements are expected to address the issue of non-tariff barriers and other impediments to bilateral trade. Other than the agreements, the two sides also said that they were working on a liberal visa regime for businessmen, exploring the possibility of investment opportunities, and tariff concessions by India after Pakistan notifies a smaller negative list. A working group is also being formed to examine if new trade routes can be opened between the two countries.