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Pakistan: Opposition Leaders Arrested

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Syeda Abida Hussain
Pakistan Peoples Party and Former Ambassador to the U.S.
Thursday, November 15, 2007; 11:00 AM

Pakistani authorities on Wednesday arrested former cricket star Imran Khan, one of the last major opposition leaders to remain at large since the military-led government declared emergency rule and began widespread detentions. A former ambassador to the United States, Syeda Abida Hussain, was also arrested.

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Hussain was online from her residence in Punjab Province on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her arrest and detention and the current situation in Pakistan since the military-led government of President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule.

The transcript follows.

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Syeda Abida Hussain: I'm ready to start.

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Pawcatuck, Conn.: Madam Ambassador, we're seeing a great deal of coverage in the U.S. and international anglophone press about Pakistani opposition/resistance to Musharraf's actions of late, but the focus is almost entirely on Bhutto -- and to a lesser extent the nation's lawyers, and now Imran Khan. Can you please tell us what actions the less-elite sectors of Pakistani society are taking? That is, what is the response of the "street," but perhaps more importantly the "village," and especially in Punjab, about which we hear almost nothing in the U.S.

Syeda Abida Hussain: I actually am responding from Punjab. My home is in a small town called Chang, and my home here has been declared a "subjail," with policeman inside and outside my house, and I've received a couple hundred visitors from villagers in the surrounding 50 miles, most of them turned away by police at my gate. It's an old home, built about 130 years ago in my grandfather's time, with big iron gates that can't be scaled -- nor the compound wall, which is very high. But I've been getting cell phone calls from folks who came and couldn't see me. I have through the course of the day been allowed to see about 20 visitors, all from the rural area near my home. I have right now in my home the chair of the local bar association, who was released three days ago. He's just been released and he's come to tell us another detention order has been served on him.

College students have been demonstrating, and I've been told that in Islamabad schoolchildren protested, coming out with their mouths taped. There's resistance in all the cities, Punjab included, and it's spreading to the rural areas. It's a widespread rebellion against the dictate of Musharraf. People are protesting against the deep censorship of the electronic media. Unless you have an expensive dish or antenna, you can't watch anything but Pakistan television, which is all propaganda of Musharraf. People also are protesting the re-removal of the Chief Supreme Court Justice of Pakistan, and that he's de facto replaced the constitution of Pakistan with a supraconstitutional military order. There's rampant inflation, a total breakdown of policies. Pakistan remains a debt-burdened state, we've thrown away all the assistance we got after Sept. 11. Last but not least people are starting to wake up that the terrorism is sponsored by small groups of commandoes and intel officers who change their clothing, go kill people, and this is held up as an excuse for Gen. Musharraf not doing enough to control the incremental Talibanization of Pakistan. Now, the army has as many soldiers as the U.S. army, and we're very small economically compared to the U.S., so a large part of our budget goes to defense. This army has 210 generals who by and large have enriched themselves to the extent of being multimillionaires. No one in Pakistan believes Gen. Musharraf is hanging in there for the good of the nation -- he's just scared to lose power. People in Pakistan are delighted that Bhutto is back after her long years in exile. She tried to extend the hand of cooperation but she was attacked with bombs when she arrived and her workers have been mercilessly thrashed throughout the country and thrown into jail cells. I was not physically attacked by police, but I was arrested -- they came to my home and took me away to the local police station, and now my house is a subjail and I'm confined to three rooms in the rear of my home.

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Lyme, Conn.: How do you believe your nation's internal political struggles are affecting your nation's relations with India? What might be the consequences of these changed relations?

Syeda Abida Hussain: India has been fortunate in the 60 years that it has been a sovereign independent state. They've attained democracy. We have been less fortunate in the independent sovereign state. We managed to dismember ourselves after the first 25 years, when Bangladesh seceded. In the past 35 years we have been under 11 years of military rule with one general, and now nine with Musharraf. Twenty years of 35 we've been under military rule. This has handicapped us severely. If we get back to a parliamentary form of government, it would facilitate the process of normalizing relations with our great neighbor.

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Rockville, Md.: Madam Ambassador, I had the pleasure of meeting you when you were in Washington and represented Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In the current situation when everyone (except Bush)is asking Musharraf to quit, why don't we tell the world how it works -- that the Senate Chairman takes over as acting president. The perception is that the next general in command probably would take over. The West is not comfortable with a general taking over and putting elections on the back burner for another 8-10 years.

Syeda Abida Hussain: Thank you for your question and for remembering me. I entirely agree with you that the safest course for Pakistan is for the proclamation order be withdrawn. The next senior most general, Kiyani would take over as army chief and Musharraf would resign and go home, and the acting chair of the senate of Pakistan would act as president, as is laid down in the Constitution. That also would ipso facto restore the Supreme Court justices who were heroic in restoring the proclamation and currently are being detained under house arrest, just as I am. The restoration of the majesty of the supreme court and our chief justice would mean that an new election commissioner appointed by the court would oversee a credible process, and let the best party win. I'm thrilled that Sharif and Bhutto have cooperated with each other for the past several years and are working together in this agitation and civil rights campaign against Musharraf.

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Washington: We have not seen any rioting or looting amid the political instability in Pakistan -- this is a positive development. However, it seems that the average Pakistani is not out on the street protesting. Why are we not seeing mass demonstrations in Pakistan against Musharraf? Will we see them if this state of emergency lasts longer?

Syeda Abida Hussain: It's not just a state of emergency, it's martial law. When people demonstrate they are picked up, thrown in jail, detained in their homes. Given all of this, mass demonstration like the one's you're familiar with in the Western world could develop if this goes on longer. But I believe if we transition while the demonstrations are peaceful, the demonstrations will be consistent and large and peaceful. There was one mega-demonstration when Bhutto arrived, but that was interrupted by the horrible bombing. All of this has made peaceful Pakistanis apprehensive about going out on the street to demonstrate. The average Pakistani understands that Musharraf is a renegade fighting a war against the people to retain personal power. So while I'm proud that Pakistanis have sustained a movement to restore the judges -- now in its ninth month -- and the movement of the bar and the bench to restore the justices is continuing. I do believe that this is the right time for us to start moving in the direction of an election. If we get into a phase where there are mega-rallies and Musharraf is still there, the discipline of the police and military services would be severely tested, and we could lapse into a chaotic and potentially dangerous situation.

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Rockville, Md.: Madam Ambassador, we understand electronic media is still blacked out for the Pakistanis. What is the main reason -- are they not accepting the new PEMRA rules or they are still not allowed to broadcast?

Syeda Abida Hussain: They're not being allowed to broadcast because they won't accept the very restrictive PEMRA rules. They can't show anything criticizing or lampooning Gen. Musharraf, can't show people demonstrating and being mercilessly struck by the riot police. The electronic media has sensitized the people of Pakistan about what is happening from one end of the country to the other. Were it not for the electronic media, we would not know that the Taliban is being allowed into Pakistan incrementally, first in Waziristan and now in SWAT and moving into the northern area, where the Chinese engineers working on a major highway have been evacuated. The Talibanization of Pakistan is being encouraged by Gen. Musharraf to frighten the people of Pakistan that "it's either me or the Taliban, take your pick, people." He said just yesterday to Sky Television that he does not believe that democracy is more important than Pakistan and that he's the custodian of the nation's well-being and safety of the nation. L'Etat, c'est moi -- the way of all dictators in Asia and Africa. In this situation we do not believe his continuing in office will help in any way. We believe that with each passing day he is more and more harmful to the interests of the people of Pakistan.

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Los Angeles: At this stage, what precisely would you like to see the U.S. do to help the situation in Pakistan?

Syeda Abida Hussain: Undersecretary Negroponte is coming in a day or two and presumably he'll be speaking with Musharraf. Bush has said that the U.S. government would like to see Musharraf shed his uniform and conduct a free and fair election. But Musharraf has not heard Bush and is determined to continue as Gen. Musharraf -- he described his uniform as his second skin, and obviously he'd be loathe to get out of that. He believes that so long as he is in uniform he can fight his way to survival. Allegedly he has told his coterie that he has the models of Mubarak and Suharto before him, and that if they can pull through then he can take his time in transitioning to democracy. He addressed a press conference, before the draconian laws on the media, where he said that he was not going to put up with the dictate of the Americans. He'll choose his own time to shed his uniform. So I believe that until the considerable assistance given to him and his military is withheld, he simply won't hear the U.S. government on the issues of leaving the military or holding elections. He's deluded himself and his cohorts into believing that they can pull off a second rigged election, that the protestors will calm down, both Bhutto and Sharif will stay out of Pakistan and Khan will return to cricket and everyone will resign themselves to another five years of governance by those people Musharraf will select.

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Kansas City, Kan.: You and your husband in the past have switched sides between Benazir's and Nawaz Sharif's parties several times. Don't you think the U.S. should encourage democratic reforms first and not insist so much on democratic elections?

Syeda Abida Hussain: Incorrect -- my husband and I joined Nawaz Sharif's party when he led the opposition way back in 1994. We remained in that party until he left for Saudi Arabia for what we gathered would be 10 years. We joined the PPP of Bhutto a couple of years ago after she had signed a charter of democracy along with Prime Minister Sharif, and we do believe it is wrong to switch sides if you are elected on the platform of a party for purposes of power or privilege. That is not the case for us -- we joined both Sharif and Bhutto in the opposition, and we have been elected twice each as independent candidates. Only once were we elected on Sharif's platform. In the next election we'll run on the PPP platform and will remain consistent while representing the people from that platform.

This sounds to me like a Pakistani-American from Kansas. My thought is that as someone who lives in my country that political reform is a reform that the people of Pakistan have to make for themselves. I don't believe an nation, the United States included, can reduce a reform from a long distance of any kind.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How restricted are you? How much travel are you permitted? Since you are doing this discussion, how much are you allowed to communicate with the outside world and to those within your own country?

Syeda Abida Hussain: Since I've been restricted, I was in the police station fro five hours, where I had access to my cell phone, and I was brought to my home just after midnight last night. I have access to my cell phone but not my computer. I have access to my blackberry, because the police didn't know what it was, and when they asked me I said it was a wireless message service and they handed it back to me. I'm restricted to only three rooms in my house, but these are my means of communication with friends worldwide.

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Princeton, N.J.: In a free and fair election, how well would fundamentalist Islamic parties (such as the one that rules Iran) do? Are middle levels of the Army Fundamentalists? How about the ISI?

Syeda Abida Hussain: My response to your first question is that before the 2002 election, which was altered by Musharraf, the religious political parties very often opposed each other and rarely were able to get more than 20 seats in a house of 215. Now, Musharraf in 1997 as part of his electoral reform program took the number of seats up to 340. Also, it's the ISI that brought the religious parties together, convinced them to work with each other and brought together the United Congress of Action (MME). We refer to it as the Mullah-Military Alliance. They have considerable strength in the Pashtun area of Pakistan, but they have very little response in the Punjab and other areas. It's limited in terms of popular support to about a sixth of the area of Pakistan. As for the ISI, the ISI has used quite skillfully its involvement with the mullahs, and it's served the interests of the ISI and the Pakistani army. The mullahs are supported by the military and the military is supported by the mullahs. As for their capacity to maintain unity within their ranks and the extent to which the army has been penetrated by mullah-minded personnel, I don't see any of the military as anything-minded, just mercenary. It is not a very good military at winning battles, let alone wars, and they are generally very poorly educated, so I don't see this as a threat. As for the parallel with Iran, I believe that if Musharraf is maintained with military support, then obviously that sort of effort on the part of the Western world will alienate more and more Pakistanis.

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Boston: What would have been a more-constructive U.S. policy towards Pakistan after Sept. 11 that would have been more effective in curbing al-Qaeda's influence and support in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan?

Syeda Abida Hussain: My husband and I had counseled Gen. Musharraf when asked to meet with him in the early part of 2002 that he should not seek to become THE leader of Pakistan, that he should allow all Pakistani leaders outside the country -- Bhutto, Sharif, and others -- to return and that he should allow a free election that would elect some sympathy for the PMLQ, and he could hope to see an electoral result that would be mixed and we'd have to learn to work with coalition governments, just as India has. He could continue as army chief, and it could happen that the parties could come together in a consensus to elect him president. This advice was spurned and we were prevented from victory in our own electoral battles. Subsequently Musharraf pursued personal aggrandizement and now it's a little too late. He has gotten rid of the chief justice and the independent-minded court, which would not interpret the constitution to allow Musharraf to continue as president. I believe he wants to continue forever. The marshal law order really has been to get rid of the court, and Musharraf has said as much himself.

I have been consistent with regard to Washington, and talking to my friends in America who were in the U.S. government when I was there in the early '90s, and I've shared my thinking with friends in London, Washington, Rome and Tokyo, along the same lines, that the only way to persuade Musharraf to pursue a straightforward, honest strategy of counterterrorism and not dodge around the question would be to withhold some of the goodies being sent straight to him. I do believe the assistance coming from the United States, for instance, should come to the people, not the military. Often the equipment Pakistan has purchased has been fairly irrelevant to the battle against terrorism, for instance equipment for the three ships in our navy. There are not very savory practices in the purchasing of this hardware. All of this from half a billion dollars a year that really are not expended on the people of Pakistan. I just think it's a waste of U.S. taxpayers' money.

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Houston: I have heard that one of the other major obstacles to a true democracy in Pakistan is that there is something like a feudal system in much of the country and that Bhutto and Sharif are both elites from that class. Is that the case, and have they done anything to help the people in their respective towns? Do they have to be leaders of the country in order to make such changes and if that is the case, did they make such changes during their terms as PM?

Syeda Abida Hussain: I think that the largest feudal estate in Pakistan would not exceed in today's Pakistan 1,000 acres, so somebody who's living in Texas, to suggest that 1,000 acres of land is worth the governance is really absurd. We are a country of 164 million, and if every acre were distributed to the population, I believe each person would get something like 2.5 acres. Nobody anywhere in the world can make a living on that, and of course if you segment land you also lower production.

Sharif was not from a background of land ownership. His father had a small foundry and to his credit was a skilled worker and developed that into a large foundry and because of that his sons got educations and became industrialists, with sugar and industrial mills. As for Bhutto, yes she still owns a few hundred acres, but that doesn't enable you to get anywhere in terms of personal costs, and you can't more than 500 or 1,000 votes. To get a seat in parliament, you need a minimum of 50,000 votes. We've gone way beyond this kind of backward argument. The problem with Pakistan to day is that we don't have enough money trickling down from the rich to the middle class to the working class, so what has happened is that 100 million people in Pakistan are living with bare minimums, and another 20 million are in a deeply struggling middle class. This sort of economic profile is troubling, and for those of us who dedicate our lives to the uplift of the people of this country, I'd like to say that there are very many people with political backgrounds who have built dispensaries, hospitals, schools as their contribution to the uplift of civil society.

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Anonymous: Hello and I hope you are well, Musharraf compared his actions to Abraham Lincoln's decree to suspend constitutional law. He also spoke to the need to reel in activist judges. The prime minister made comments that if the U.S. wanted to fight al-Qaeda and keep their homeland safe from attacks, the U.S. should support Musharraf. Musharraf and his PM statements mirror President Bush's statements regarding what Bush must do to protect Americans. Do Musharraf and his government make these comments to mock Bush and/or to draw similarities to his actions and those of Bush, and to seek lenience from the international community? Do the majority of Pakistanis resent U.S. government meddling in their affairs?

Syeda Abida Hussain: Yes, the majority of Pakistanis resent the U.S. meddling in their affairs to the extent of supporting Musharraf. The majority also expects the Americans to help in the removal of Musharraf, so this is a Catch-22 situation. At the same time, in dealing with that question, apropos to Musharraf quoting Lincoln, I would just say "ha ha." It reveals Musharraf has very little knowledge. I believe the context of that statement was apropos for the civil war and the presence of French troops in the American mainland, so that quote really was absurd given our present context. Musharraf has been pampered by the United States, armed by the United States, to prevent the Taliban from coming into that, and he's failed. Now he wants more so, what, they can get farther into the country? That is absurd. The great American people are consoled by the realization that whether they approve or disapprove of Bush, about this time next year he will be in the history books and a new president will have been elected. Unfortunately in Pakistan we're still struggling to keep the military off our back in terms of the rule and misgovernence of our country.

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Rockford, Ill.: Do you see any hope for Pakistan? Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both have proved to be incompetent in the past. All the political parties exploit poor people to gain power and plunder the country. In a civilized country Bhutto would be in a jail, considering how corrupt she and her husband were and that is wife of Mr 10 Percent, and now she wants to be the next leader. Courts in Switzerland and Spain can't be wrong. Unfortunately future of Pakistan is bleak with all the current leaders

Syeda Abida Hussain: My response would be that first of all the courts in both Spain and Switzerland have not come to any conclusion on the cases instituted by Musharraf in these courts against Bhutto. As far as the perception of Sharif and Bhutto as not transparent, they've both said repeatedly that they're accountable to the courts of Pakistan and if individuals would like to establish that they weren't transparent, they'd be happy to face courts in their country. As far as Pakistan having no good leaders, I believe the people of Pakistan have the right to choose whoever they want in a free vote, and the business of repeating leaders, obviously this question is influenced by an understanding of the U.S. government. We have a parliamentary form of government, and in Britain, Spain, Japan, prime ministers repeat frequently, but as we develop and evolve the system and if it's not interrupted by military interventions, the people would improve the quality of leadership they support. Obviously nobody is perfect and individuals, organizations and nations are seeking to improve themselves all the time.

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Syeda Abida Hussain: It has been a great pleasure for me to do this discussion with The Washington Post. It is a great newspaper and I try to follow the newspaper as often as I can. Thank you, I enjoyed this very much.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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