The "Spin Cycle" in Musharraf's Institution Laundering

Yesterday, former General Pervez Musharraf purported to "lift" the Emergency he declared on November 3rd, claiming that he has now "revived" the Pakistan Constitution of 1973. Members of Pakistan's civil society are not particularly impressed. And they shouldn't be. Musharraf's claim to have "lifted" the Emergency makes sense only if we understand the word "lifted" to mean "institutionalized and made permanent via a one-man constitutional convention." Most of the actions he has taken during the last six weeks remain in place, and even his orders purporting to "lift" the Emergency simultaneously implement a raft of permanent constitutional amendments designed to consolidate his grip on power. Let's take stock of where things now stand compared to where they stood on November 2nd:

  1. Musharraf has laundered the judiciary by dismissing all Supreme Court and High Court judges who refused to take a new oath of loyalty to his provisional constitutional regime and packing the courts with pliant judges who have explicitly pledged their loyalty to him. Through a unilateral amendment to the Pakistan Constitution itself, he has now made the dismissal of those judges permanent. In the process, he has prevented the Supreme Court of Pakistan from adjudicating his eligibility to hold office and undermined its ability to proceed with a credible investigation into the hundreds of disappearances that have occurred since 2001 in connection with the "war on terror" (as discussed in the documentary "Missing in Pakistan," which is linked above).
  2. He has detained thousands of regime opponents, apparently subjecting some of them to torture. While most of these individuals have now been released, several leading lawyers remain under house arrest, and the message to would-be regime opponents has been crystal clear.
  3. He has laundered the media, forcing independent television networks off the air and permitting their return only on condition that they (1) muzzle themselves by pulling programming critical of his regime and (2) abide by a "code of conduct" that permits the government to suspend their operations more or less at will.
  4. He has amended the Army Act, with retrospective effect from January 2003, to permit civilians to be tried in military tribunals for offenses ranging "from murder to libel," including "expressions or acts that are 'prejudicial' or offensive towards the government." [link]
  5. He has amended the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act in a manner that permits the executive to interfere with the operations of independent bar associations and makes it easier to target lawyers critical of the government with allegations of misconduct. [link]
  6. He has unilaterally and permanently amended the Pakistan Constitution to restructure the judiciary, changing the eligibility requirements for individuals to become High Court judges and creating a new Islamabad High Court in order to facilitate easy transfer of cases from other High Courts to a more favorable jurisdiction "composed of judges that the government has handpicked." [link]
  7. He has unilaterally and permanently amended the Constitution to validate his eligibility to hold office as President.
  8. And last but not least, he has unilaterally and permanently amended the Constitution to indemnify his self-consciously extraconstitutional actions. Under Article 6 of the Pakistan Constitution, those actions constitute "high treason" insofar as they entail an effort to abrogate or subvert the Constitution "by use of force or show of force or by other unconstitutional means." However, under Musharraf's new amendment, the Constitution now provides that all laws and actions during the past six weeks are now "affirmed, adopted and declared to have been validly made ... and notwithstanding anything contained in the Constitution shall not be called in question in any court or forum on any ground whatsoever." Even after Musharraf's first coup, he was not so brazen as to unilaterally indemnify himself, instead obtaining that indemnification (albeit with some difficulty, even though it was packed with his supporters) from Parliament, as General Zia ul-Haq had before him. This time, however, Musharraf is insisting that Parliament's prior decisions to indemnify these acts of treason were merely "ceremonial," arguing somewhat oddly through his law minister that "not a single provision in the Constitution required [Parliamentary] validation of measures done through extra-constitutional steps." [link] (I suppose that technically might be true, but of course, that also just might be because under the Constitution, "extra-constitutional steps" are, well, unconstitutional, full stop -- indeed, it would be surprising if the Constitution contemplated the "validation" of such steps by anyone.)

The effects of these changes will long outlast the "lifting" of the Emergency. And so, the laundering of Pakistan's institutions is nearly complete; all that appears to remain is the spin cycle, in which Musharraf and his allies publicly congratulate themselves for how much they have done to promote democracy in Pakistan. The Bush administration and "America's Sweetheart" Benazir Bhutto have duly cooperated with Musharraf's spinning, with both welcoming his actions this weekend as a positive step with little or no accompanying criticism. Of course, neither response is all that surprising at this point. Not only has Bush himself said that Musharraf has not "crossed any lines," but some press reports have even suggested that Western governments have quietly endorsed Musharraf's purge of the judiciary because they, too, have been concerned about Pakistani judges acting too independently. For her part, Benazir has scrupulously avoided calling for the restoration of Pakistan's purged judges, stating -- to considerable disbelief -- that she believes in the independence of the judiciary but that the "personalities" of those judges do not matter. And flip-flopping like Mitt Romney, Benazir now even has suggested that she might be willing and able to work with the General after all.

As for the upcoming elections, Musharraf insists that they will be free and fair. Early indications -- including the use of the police to hang up posters for Musharraf's party, as seen in the above photo -- are not promising. Adil Najam seems right on the money in describing the "lifting" of the Emergency as "three steps back, half a step forward."

Posted by Anil Kalhan