In the Heart of Pakistan, a Deep Sense of Anxiety

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."

Government officials have defended the emergency measures, saying that certain elements are a threat to law and order. They have also said that the judges who were removed from the Supreme Court had released militants from prison for political reasons.

As part of the emergency measures, the government has also blocked transmissions by privately owned television stations.

Hamid Mir, an anchor with Pakistan's independent Geo TV network, said Tuesday that Geo's chief executive had been taken to a safe house operated by the country's Inter-Services Intelligence service, or ISI, and accused of "anti-Pakistan activities."

That was followed up by an e-mail in which the CEO, Shakil Rahman, was warned that "Pakistan Army is the backbone of Pakistan, don't try to damage it." If he did, the e-mail continued, he and his family "would be hunted down like rats."

The activists arrested during the meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Lahore are now being referred to as the "Lahore 70." They were denied bail by a court here; some were taken to prison, others were placed under house arrest.

Relatives and supporters have held a candlelight vigil and are now speaking out.

"My 61-year-old educator mother was jailed for attending a meeting to talk about how to make a better Pakistan," said Zaki Rehman, a corporate lawyer, whose mother is a high school principal in Lahore. "She's not Osama bin Laden hiding in some rocky hill station. The level of violence against civil society and those seeking to question Musharraf's rule is making this one of Pakistan's darkest periods in an already sad history."

"Where are the mass arrests in the border areas?" said Sarwat Ali, a professor of music at the National College of Arts. "That's not happening. To the government, the terrorists are those social and political groups who are ready to speak up."

On the college's leafy campus, where the English writer Rudyard Kipling once helped set up a museum, some students and professors said it was ironic that thousands of military personnel had been diverted from fighting terrorists to the edges of campuses and court buildings across the country.

"In art, we must use the general to address the specific," said Shahid Sajjad, 72, Pakistan's most famous sculptor, whose gray locks were pulled back into a ponytail as he hosted the opening day of an exhibit of his work at the college. "Artists must think in terms of all human pain, which is the same all over the world. When we do that and send it around the world through art, we can see that in Pakistan we are facing a lot of pain right now, and we need to work our way out of this chaos."

His favorite piece on display was a towering statue of two human figures holding a collapsed corpse. The body, said Sajjad, his eyebrows raised, represents "knowledge being held captive."

Correspondent Griff Witte in Islamabad and special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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