My interview Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch published in The Friday Times

No government institution, including the courts, should be immune from public debate in a democratic society’

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently published its 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarising major human rights trends in more than 90 states and territories worldwide. TFT asked Ali Dayan of HRW about the state of human rights in Pakistan.

What have been the key findings of the 2011 World Report with respect to Pakistan?

Militant attacks and judicial misconduct mark the year. Suicide bombings, armed attacks, and killings by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates targeted nearly every sector of Pakistani society, including religious minorities and journalists, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The country’s largest cities bore the brunt of these attacks. Two attacks in late May 2010 against the Ahmadiyya religious community in Lahore killed nearly 100 people. On July 1, a suicide bombing at Data Darbar, shrine of the patron saint of Lahore, killed 40 people.Militant attacks targeting civilians in conflict areas amounted to war crimes. 2010 has been a disastrous year for human rights in Pakistan.

What has been the role of the security agencies in the human rights violations?

Taliban atrocities aren’t happening in a vacuum, but instead often with covert support from elements in the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies. The Pakistan government needs to use all lawful means to hold those responsible to account. Furthermore, Pakistani government’s response to militant attacks has routinely violated basic rights. Thousands of Taliban suspects have been held in unlawful military detention without charge, many of them in two military facilities in Swat, one in the Khyber agency of the tribal areas, and at least one more in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Keeping in view the aggression of Taliban and Al Qaeda against Pakistan, what is HRW’s view on the civilian casualties due to drone attacks?

Drone strikes by the United States on suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan escalated in 2010. These strikes were accompanied by persistent claims of large numbers of civilian casualties, but lack of access to the conflict areas has prevented independent verification.

Has Pakistani media adequately reported on human rights abuses?

Pakistan’s media remained vocal a critic of the government and experienced less interference from the elected government than in previous years. However, we have found that fearful of retaliation, the media rarely reported on human rights abuses by the military in counterterrorism operations.

The report also focuses on women’s rights and abuses towards religious minorities. How does HRW approach the debate on blasphemy law in Pakistan?

Persecution and discrimination under cover of law against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups continues to be a serious problem. On November 7, Aasia Bibi, a Christian from Punjab province, became the first woman in the country’s history to be sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy. Attempts by government officials and legislators to seek pardon and amend the discriminatory blasphemy law were greeted with threats, intimidation, and violence. On December 30, the government backtracked on its promise to review the blasphemy law. On January 4, 2011, Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, a vocal critic of the blasphemy law was gunned down in Islamabad by a bodyguard who admitted to the killing, saying he did it because of Taseer’s stance on the issue. Taseer had received numerous death threats for his support of Aasia Bibi. A former information minister, Sherry Rehman, who proposed amendments to the blasphemy law, has also received death threats publicly in the face of government inaction. Instead of capitulating to extremists who intimidate, threaten, and kill those with opposing views, the government should protect those at risk, such as Rehman, and hold those inciting violence accountable.

Your report has made comments on Pakistani courts in addressing human rights issues. Please elaborate.

Sadly the courts themselves have been on the other side of the fence when it comes to human rights. Pakistan’s independent judiciary repeatedly caused controversy by overstepping its constitutional authority and relying on overly broad “contempt” laws to muzzle criticism of judicial conduct. Journalists told HRW that major television channels were informally advised by judicial authorities that they would be summoned to face contempt charges for criticising or commenting unfavorably on judicialdecisions or specific judges. Publications, including the English-language newspapers Dawn and The News, were compelled to apologise publicly to the courts. Journalists atDawn faced contempt proceedings for publishing a story alleging misuse of office by the chief justice of the Sindh High Court. No government institution, including the courts, should be immune from public debate in a democratic society. Judicial independence does not mean that judicial decisions‚ or evenjudges themselves‚ should not be subject to public criticism.

Can you give more examples from HRW’s analysis of issues with the Pakistani legal system?

Relations between the judiciary and some of its erstwhile allies in the “Lawyer’s Movement,” which helped restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to office in 2009, deteriorated markedly during the year. In October, lawyers physically tried to attack the chief justice of the Lahore High Court in his chambers. The following day, provincial police, which had been allowed into the court premises by the Lahore chief justice, beat and arrestedsome 100 lawyers and charged them under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act.

In April, the Supreme Court controversially agreed to consider challenges to the unanimously enacted 18thAmendment to the Constitution, limiting presidential power and giving parliament, the prime minister, the judiciary, and provincial governments greater autonomy. Politicians and civil society groups had hailed the amendment as an important step in restoring Pakistan’s parliamentary system of democracy. The court heard several challenges to the amendment, including the mechanism for judicial appointments, the renaming of the North West Frontier Province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and provisions preventing defections from political parties.

In December, acting on a Supreme Court interim order, parliament passed the 19thAmendment to assuage the court’s concerns on the procedure for judicial appointments. However, the remaining challenges are pending and the court has not ruled on them. On August 16‚ the Supreme Court indicated its intention of appropriating legislative powers when it stated that Parliament has limited powers to amend the Constitution with reference to Islam. Provisions related to Islam were inserted into the Constitution in 1986 by a parliament seated after rigged elections, under pressure from the military dictator General Zia-ulHaq.

In November, the Lahore High Court unconstitutionally prevented President Asif Ali Zardari from pardoning Aasia Bibi, the blasphemy law victim. The High Court also voluntarily accepted for hearing a frivolous petition seeking Sherry Rehman’s disqualification from parliamentary office on the grounds that she had committed “apostasy” by trying to offer amendments to the blasphemy law.

It is the right of any member of parliament to propose legislation. For the Lahore High Court to entertain such malicious litigation amounts to legal persecution.

Are you saying that judicial actions have perpetuated rights’ abuse?

Yes. In December 2010, the Federal Shariat Court ruled several key provisions of the 2006 Women’s Protection Act unconstitutional, which had sought to nullify the most abusive provisions of the cruel Hudood Ordinance, another relic of the Zia-ul Haq era. The verdict withdrew relief provided by the Women’s Protection Act and undermined protections provided in accordance with the fundamental rights provisions of Pakistan’s constitution.

It is sad that Pakistan’s judicial system is using its newfound independence to undermine parliament and restore discrimination and abuse rather than to end it.

What is the official stance of the US with regard to human rights abuses?

While the US remained Pakistan’s most significant ally and was the largest donor to Pakistan’s flood relief effort, HRW documented several instances in 2010 in which US aid to Pakistan appeared to contravene the US Leahy Law. The law requires the US State Department to certify that no military unit receiving US aid is involved in gross human rights abuses and, when such abuses are found, to investigate them thoroughly and properly. In October, the US imposed sanctions on six units of the Pakistani military operating in the Swat valley, but at the same time announced a US$2 billion military aid package for Pakistan to help the country meet unprecedented counter-terrorism challenges. The Leahy sanctions have not resulted in an end to reports of executions by Pakistani security forces. Killings by the army need to end, and the US should stop sending mixed signals that allow the army to continue their business as usual.