Pakistan Crisis Q&A With Karin Ryan, Carter Center Human Rights Program Director

Karin Ryan is director of the Carter Center's Human Rights Program.

What are the implications of President Musharraf's imposition of martial law for human rights defenders in a post-9/11 world?

The Carter Center, since 2003, has warned of the dangers that autocratic leaders would take advantage of the "war on terror" to suppress legitimate political opposition and basic human rights. What General Musharraf has done is to try to wipe away the results of decades of effort by human rights and judicial leaders to restrain the powers of executive authority in Pakistan, which for half of the country's history has been in the hands of the military. An independent judicial system has been built with hard-won gains of dedicated jurists and those who have risked their lives to bring human rights into the court room.

In fact, it was a showdown with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who refused to be bullied by General Musharraf, that has precipitated this crisis. The chief justice and more than 1,300 hundred lawyers have been arrested, and Musharraf is seeking to usurp the power to regulate the licensing of lawyers in the future. After decades of building an independent judicial system that the public can look to for fairness and accountability, such a move would set back democratic progress tremendously.

The United States set a bad precedent in recent years by pursuing policies of illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention and torture of detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism, and the evisceration of basic human and legal rights such a habeas corpus, an ancient concept at the heart of our system: that the government must be able to demonstrate that it has a good reason to deprive a person of liberty.

Americans cannot ignore the consequences of these actions. We always have been a leader on the question of human rights, even without a perfect record. We always were willing to examine our conduct and correct mistakes. These new approaches send a signal to repressive governments the world over that all they have to say is that they are fighting terrorism and all rules can be suspended. This is a very slippery and dangerous road.

What do you make of international response to the situation in Pakistan, particularly the response of the United States?

Initially the United States appeared ready to indulge Musharraf's bid to crush the judiciary in the hope that he could sustain his control under cover of a limited power-sharing deal with the opposition and some semblance of national elections in January. Now it appears that the United States and other governments may believe that it is essential for him to lift the state of emergency to allow for more credible elections as a necessary step toward restoring constitutional order and an independent judiciary.

A house arrest order has been issued for Hina Jilani, a partner in the Center's Human Rights Defenders Forum, and her sister, Asma Jahangir, is currently under house arrest. What is your response to this action, and what would you say to these defenders?

Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani are outspoken and courageous leaders. They have taken on the military establishment as well as religious fundamentalists. Their vision is a secular, moderate, human rights-respecting nation, offering a hopeful future to the people of Pakistan. The majority of Pakistanis support this kind of future, so their profile might seem to General Musharraf as a challenge to his leadership. But their movement has been more about the rule of law than about one political party's dominance over another. This is what makes their work so important and The Carter Center hopes they can continue to work for this vision of the future without reprisals from the government on the one hand or extremists on the other.

What does the continuation of the emergency order mean for the Pakistan elections?

How can elections take place without a free press or when the political opposition are under house arrest, in jail, or prohibited from participating in the election? Elections are only important if they are a stepping stone for the development of democratic institutions like an independent judiciary. But an election that takes place after judges have been dismissed precisely because they would not rule in favor of the government would be a farce.

How might this situation best be resolved for the citizens of Pakistan?

General Musharraf should restore the Supreme Court that he dismissed, lift martial law, release political prisoners and human rights defenders, and engage with political parties to develop a plan for moving to free and fair elections.