Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Pakistan’s Chief Justice Assails Attorney General Over Taliban Flogging

Students in Lahore, Pakistan, protested against the flogging of a 17-year-old woman in the Taliban-controlled area of Swat.

April 7, 2009
Pakistan’s Chief Justice Assails Attorney General Over Taliban Flogging

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The newly restored chief justice of Pakistan displayed his reputation as a human rights advocate and a prod to the government on Monday, when he hauled the attorney general and other officials before the Supreme Court and rebuked them over the flogging of a 17-year-old woman in the Taliban-controlled area of Swat.

The chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, assailed the officials for laziness and self-importance, and challenged them for not taking up the case until it became a national scandal in recent days, when a video showing the woman pinned to the ground and repeatedly whipped by a Taliban commander was broadcast on Pakistani television.

“Before the video became public, what were you doing, why couldn’t you find out what had happened?” Mr. Chaudhry asked the attorney general, Sardar Latif Khosa.

By choosing to highlight the terror in Swat, Mr. Chaudhry, who has been back on the bench about two weeks after two years of enforced limbo, immediately returned to his role of shaming an acquiescent government and military into acting in the face of wrongdoing.

Last week, Mr. Chaudhry and his seven fellow judges demanded that the officials bring the woman, known as Chand, before the court as part of an investigation into what had happened.

When the officials failed to produce her Monday, the hearing turned into a critical public airing of the government’s decision to enter a peace deal in February that effectively gave the Taliban control over Swat, just 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

The attorney general, Mr. Khosa, aware that the situation was embarrassing for the government, asked at the outset that the hearing be held behind closed doors, a request Mr. Chaudhry batted away.

From the volley of exchanges between the judges and the officials, and an impassioned account by a prominent lawyer before the court of the terror in Swat, it became clear that the Taliban ran the area with impunity.

Chand was singled out for the punishment after she declined a Taliban fighter’s proposal for marriage, the head of the Peshawar Bar Association, Abdul Latif Afridi, said after the hearing.

After her refusal to marry, an electrician visited the family home, and, according to Mr. Afridi’s account, the scorned Taliban suitor saw her leave the house with the workman. She was flogged on March 7, accused of consorting with the electrician as an unmarried woman, the lawyer said.

Since the video was first shown on Pakistani television stations last Thursday, it has set off an emotional national debate.

Some commentators and political leaders have defended the flogging as being within the bounds of Islamic law. The leader of the right-wing Islamist party Jamaat Islaami said the flogging was unimportant compared to the missile strikes against militants in the tribal areas by American drones.

Samar Minallah, a rights activist, distributed the video to news outlets after receiving it from a contact in Swat, where it is available in markets. Ms. Minallah said she wanted the nation to know what was going on in the area that federal and provincial officials had been too afraid to visit since the February peace deal.

The atmosphere of fear and the absence of law was most vividly described to the judges by Mr. Afridi, the Peshawar lawyer, who appeared separately from the government officials.

A seven-month operation by the Pakistani Army against the Taliban from last July until February had resulted “in a total surrender” and the killing of hundreds of people by Pakistani soldiers, he said.

Now, he said: “The most fundamental rights are violated every second of every day. People are being ejected from their houses, courts are closed, 300 schools have been demolished.”

More than 900 police officers had deserted the force of 1,600 in Swat, and now the Taliban were on the verge of taking over the neighboring area of Dir, Mr. Afridi said.

After listening to the grim assessment, Mr. Chaudhry asked the attorney general what he was doing about Swat.

A “high-powered committee” had been appointed, the nation’s senior lawyer replied. “We are trying to retrieve the writ of the government,” he said.

Mr. Chaudhry complained that the police, instead of filing a formal complaint on the flogging the same night the video had first been shown, had waited several days. Had the woman appeared before any court, he asked.

“If she has, it’s in front of a kangaroo court,” replied Malik Naveed Khan, the inspector general of police in the North-West Frontier Province.

Then Mr. Chaudhry turned his attention to the senior official in the Interior Ministry, Kemal Shah, who reached retirement age two years ago but was given an indefinite extension by Pervez Musharraf, the president at the time, to serve as secretary of the Interior Ministry.

Why had the secretary not been to Swat, the chief justice asked, a question that was a clear challenge to the government’s impotence in an area where even the military fears to operate.

Faced with silence, the judge ordered: “You go to Swat yourself. You must be very bright. You go yourself. We command you do it and report to us what is happening.”

After the hearing, a journalist from Swat, Ehsan Haqqani, who reports for The Associated Press of Pakistan, said he was pleased that the Supreme Court had brought attention to a situation most others had ignored.

“We were the forgotten people,” said Mr. Haqqani, who has edited a collection of essays, “The Plea of Swat,” published by Shoaib Sons Publishers in Mingora, Swat. “The government was only a silent spectator. Now the Supreme Court is forcing the government to take notice. That is encouraging for us.”

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