Farce Majeure: Why Pakistan’s 2018 General Election is a brutal mockery By Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan’s farcical election features Nawaz Sharif and his daughter in prison, hardline terrorists freely contesting, media censorship, crackdowns on protests — and bomb blasts targeting select political rallies.

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Author Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan has had a succession of weak elected civilian governments — but most of them at least started out with a veneer of respectability. The government formed after the July 25, 2018 election would be the first to lack credibility from its very first day.

Pakistan has had a succession of weak elected civilian governments — but most of them at least started out with a veneer of respectability. The government formed after the July 25, 2018 election would be the first to lack credibility from its very first day.

These elections are being held under the shadow of media censorship, arbitrary disqualifications of leading candidates, manipulation of political parties by intelligence services, and the mainstreaming of terrorists.

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PML-N supporters arrested after holding a rally to obstruct the arrest of Mohammad Safdar, son-in-law of of Nawaz Sharif.

Even by Pakistani standards, the interference of Pakistan’s military establishment is too blatant and too obvious this time for the world to ignore. If the establishment’s favorites win, they will not be viewed as having won the people’s mandate.

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People’s mandate? The interference of Pakistan’s military establishment is too blatant and too obvious this time for the world to ignore

In case they somehow lose, the stage will be set for a new round of confrontation between the establishment and its protégés, on the one hand, and the political parties they tried to block, on the other.

In unprecedented panic on part of the establishment, no holds have been barred in denying space to Pakistan’s political mainstream — while mainstreaming extremists.

This is an unusual election because restrictions are in place on all moderate political parties previously preferred by voters, while extremists identified as terrorists by local and global authorities are free to participate.

Elections are usually preceded by robust debate in the media — but in this instance, draconian constraints on media have been imposed by the intelligence agencies. The electronic and print media have been harassed directly by the security services and even Dawn, the establishment newspaper since its founding by Pakistan’s founder, has not been spared. Its publisher recently described the media environment in Pakistan as “censorship”.

Women journalists are particular targets of sexually explicit comments and threats of rape. Trolls on social media call them names that are psychologically harmful. Liberals are attacked ferociously with abuse from anonymous accounts, aimed at silencing their voices.

Speeches by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz — particular targets for elimination from the political scene — were taken off the air. Orders were issued to not air a live broadcast of Sharif’s return to Pakistan or his subsequent arrest. Interviews with the Sharif family were dropped or censored after being recorded.

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Clampdown: Orders were issued to not air a live broadcast of Sharif’s return to Pakistan or his subsequent arrest.

When Sharif returned to Pakistan to go to prison after being convicted on corruption charges, the caretaker government — charged with organising free and fair polls — cracked down on popular dissent in anticipation of his arrival. Hundreds of people were arrested in Lahore — many of them members of Sharif’s party, the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML) — and cell phone service was suspended in parts of the city.

The ensuing unrest was not confined to Lahore. Media reports indicated arrests of protesters and shutting down of major intersections in several other cities across the country. Even politicians opposed to Sharif protested this attempt to deny the right to peaceful protest.

While Sharif and his daughter have been sent to prison, the deep state’s mainstreaming of Pakistan’s “good terrorists” (militant groups it treats as strategic assets against India and in Afghanistan) is well underway. Clearly, Pakistan’s establishment deems allegations of financial wrongdoing a greater crime than terrorism.

The corruption case against Sharif was rammed through court without regard for legal niceties and he was disqualified from holding office even before he was put on trial. Meanwhile, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who is accused of being involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 26/11, 2008, is not only free, but also actively campaigning in these elections for the newly created political party, Tehrik Allah-o-Akbar.

 Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who is accused of being involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, is not only free but also actively campaigning.

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Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who is accused of being involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, is not only free but also actively campaigning.

No questions have ever been asked about the terrorist group’s financing either — an issue that has led Pakistan to be put on the grey list of the United Nations’ Financial Action Task Force. Surely, if the goal is eliminating corruption, rather than re-engineering the polity, the corruption tied to terrorism also deserves some attention.

Extremists have not faced a media blackout and other restrictions that applied to the PML-N and other political parties. After successful rallies by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the centrist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was also denied permission to travel and hold rallies, alongside denial of media access.

The Left-wing Awami National Party (AWP) has been the target of a terrorist attack on one of its major stars, Haroon Bilour, whose father had also been killed in a terrorist attack several years ago. That the pro-establishment Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan, has faced neither restrictions, nor terrorist attacks indicates whose voters are being scared from coming out to the polls.

Ironically, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, who has become a significant player in Pakistan’s politics and was instrumental in Sharif’s disqualification, had withdrawn official security from Bilour, making him an easier target for terrorists.

Another terrorist attack in Mastung, Balochistan — taking place on the day Nawaz Sharif and his daughter returned to Pakistan — killed 129 people, including a provincial Assembly candidate.

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An attempt to put off elections: The attack which killed 129 people took place on the day Nawaz Sharif and his daughter returned to Pakistan.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that “Despite the excessive presence of security forces in Balochistan, the capacity of militants to strike on this scale appears to be intact,” implicitly worrying that the terrorist attacks might be used as justification to put off elections.

The HRCP rightly asserted that “Election gatherings must not become killing fields.” But then, many Pakistanis already suspect that the July 25 election is not meant to be an exercise in democracy — it is just a cover for continued imposition of a permanent establishment’s choices on the people of Pakistan.

Note: The article was originally published by Daily O and the link to the original article is: Farce Majeure: Why Pakistan’s 2018 General Election is a brutal mockery

Writer

Farahnaz IspahaniFARAHNAZ ISPAHANI @fispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of Purifying the Land of the the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.

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“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute the weakest of the weak” By Farahnaz Ispahani

To quote a 2016 Amnesty International report, “As Good as Dead: The impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan,” once an individual is accused of blasphemy, “they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”

Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi- who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

On Saturday, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red in support of persecuted Christians, including Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. At the Rome gathering, Pope Francis described Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as “martyrs.”

Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. She was accused by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her alleged comment is punishable by death. In 2010, Bibi, at age 45, was sentenced to hang, but her case is still pending.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul Haq. In 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for “willful desecration of the Quran” and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life.”

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Author Farahnaz Ispahani

Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities. As a poor Christian from a low caste, Bibi was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination. And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way

However, Bibi’s case isn’t the first case in which Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to punish minority groups. Since Zia ul Haq imposed the laws, their application has unleashed extremist religious frenzy.

Procedures for investigation and prosecution lend themselves to widespread abuse. Assertion by a Muslim witness that blasphemy was committed is sufficient for filing of charges and arrest of a suspect — even without corroborating evidence. Furthermore, the testimony of non-Muslim witnesses in defense carries less weight, and, in most cases, the filing of charges is tantamount to punishment, because bail is denied.

Worse still, once blasphemy is alleged, mob violence or targeted killing becomes a possibility. According to researcher Mohammed Nafees, from 1990-2011, there were over 50 cases “wherein blasphemy suspects were either extrajudicially murdered or died in jail.”

Lawyers who dare to represent someone accused of blasphemy have also been killed. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a distinguished human rights lawyer brave enough to represent those most vulnerable to blasphemy charges — women and children of religious minorities, people with mental disabilities, and the weak and impoverished — was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen.

Meanwhile, judges who have dared to acquit an alleged blasphemer or convict the killer of an alleged blasphemer have either had to flee the country or face death.

Nonetheless, until now, Western governments, which viewed Pakistan as a strategic ally in the war on terrorism, did little to protect Pakistan’s religious minorities.

However, that might now be changing — albeit slowly.

The Pope’s attention to Bibi’s case parallels efforts by the European Union’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to secure her release by making it a condition for continued European market access for Pakistani products.

More specifically, Jan Figel, part of the special envoy, informed the Pakistani government that the future of Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, status to Pakistan, which allows Pakistan duty-free access to the EU markets, would be directly linked to the peaceful resolution of Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case.


Farahnaz Ispahani is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a senior fellow for South and Southeast Asia at the Religious Freedom Institute. She is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book, “Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities,” published in 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.


The article was originally published by CNN & link: Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute the weakest of the weak by Farahnaz Ispahani