U.S. policy toward Pakistan is “deaf and oblivious to the voice of the Pakistani people” and is undermining popular support for the war on terrorism, one of Pakistan’s best-known civil rights activists said in an interview.
Aitzaz Ahsan, president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, said the Bush administration’s failure to demand the reinstatement of top judges fired last year by President Pervez Musharraf was undermining efforts to win broader political support for U.S. priorities such as the fight against al Qaeda and Islamist extremists.
“The Americans are still not listening,” he said on a visit to Washington to meet with Pakistani expatriate groups and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“I think the world will pay a high cost for this very studied disability of the American administration,” the courtly, soft-spoken 62-year-old lawyer said.
Mr. Ahsan has been the driving force and public face of a string of massive street protests led by Pakistan’s legal community since Mr. Musharraf’s March 2007 dismissal of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the subsequent firing of dozens of other judges.
A Musharraf-packed Supreme Court subsequently upheld the president’s re-election in a constitutionally questionable vote in October.
Mr. Ahsan, who has a long record of human rights activism against Pakistan’s past military regimes, was detained again when Mr. Musharraf tried to tamp down growing protests. Images of anti-government demonstrations, with Pakistani lawyers in dark suits hurling rocks and dodging tear gas canisters, were broadcast around the world.
Mr. Ahsan himself was hit in the stomach by a brick during a street protest in September.
Anti-Musharraf parties, headed by assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), took power in February’s parliamentary vote, but the ruling coalition of new Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has been split on the question of whether and when to reinstate the fired judges.
Mr. Ahsan criticized the reluctance of the U.S. government to insist on the immediate reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry and his colleagues.
“What the Americans are trying to do in Iraq - set up a system of rights and the fair enforcement of laws - they have helped to demolish in Pakistan,” he argued.
“When people see their hope of a fair process and the rule of law destroyed, that is when they become alienated and turn to terrorism,” he added.
At a hearing last week, Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, pressed Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard A. Boucher to demand the judges be reinstated immediately.
“It’s a simple rule-of-law issue to me,” Mr. Feingold said.
But Mr. Boucher said Pakistan’s political parties have to resolve the impasse on their own.