In the Heart of Pakistan, a Deep Sense of Anxiety

Opposition party leaders were arrested in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, during a rally Tuesday to protest the government's imposition of emergency rule.
Opposition party leaders were arrested in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, during a rally Tuesday to protest the government's imposition of emergency rule. (Photo by Mohammad Zubair -- AP)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 6 -- Three days after President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule, a deep sense of anxiety prevails among Pakistan's students, rights activists and intellectuals, who say the mass arrests being carried out by the government mark an unprecedented assault on civil society.

When Musharraf suspended the constitution Saturday, he said he had been forced to act by rising extremism and judicial interference in his efforts to protect the country. But in Lahore, an ancient city that has long served as the cultural and intellectual heart of Pakistan, many government critics see a smoke screen being used to quash opposition.

Over the weekend, they note, an estimated 70 community leaders were arrested here during a cookies-and-tea meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Those detained included a college dean, a well-known poet, an economics professor and a board member of the International Crisis Group.

"It's like the government is declaring war on civil society and they just wish we would all zone out and watch South Asian film stars dancing around, instead of the news. We aren't some huge danger to the state. Why don't they go target the suicide bombers?" said Romessa Khan, 20, a major in painting at the National College of Arts Lahore, where students gathered in a courtyard Tuesday, worried about family members and neighbors who had been carted off to jail.

There is no indication that anger over Musharraf's moves will subside soon. Although anti-government protests were noticeably smaller Tuesday than they had been a day earlier, the country's ousted chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, urged lawyers nationwide to continue their dissent, saying, "The constitution has been ripped to shreds."

Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest since his firing along with six other Supreme Court judges, reached a gathering of lawyers in Islamabad, the capital, via cellphone. "Go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice," he said. "Don't be afraid."

Here in Lahore, however, many Pakistanis said fear was the reality.

A group of students at the National College of Arts chain-smoked, passed around headphones pumping out Urdu pop and riffed on the best way to protest emergency rule. In the end, they decided that any form of civil disobedience -- be it a protest song or an artistic rendering of jail scenes -- would be too dangerous.

The students started puffing on a fresh round of cigarettes, their headphones back on, unsure what to do.

According to activists here, most political and human rights leaders are under house arrest, their homes turned into what are known here as "sub-jails."

The activists acknowledged that the threat of Islamic extremism in Pakistan is real -- on Tuesday, fighters reportedly captured a town in the northwest -- but said they see the government's efforts as misguided and detrimental.

"This crackdown has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with Musharraf staying in power. In reality, this is really a coup against civil society," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Lahore's branch of Human Rights Watch. "The idea is to just crush any voice of criticism right now, even if we are just armed with our notebooks and e-mails, not bombs. We are the only ones offering resistance."

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