20th November 2021
Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Gulzar Ahmed inaugurated the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 on Saturday with a stern reminder that no one would dare pressurize the judiciary in the country and he would rather leave than pander to any influence.
“If there is an undemocratic system we will quit. We have quit in the past. We will quit again. I think this is enough for today,” Justice Gulzar Ahmed said defending the courts under him against any aspersions cast by anyone.
“Do not discredit the courts. Do not spread anarchy,” the Chief justice of Pakistan said as he opened the biggest judicial and human rights conference in the country which drew a galaxy of 120 national and international expert speakers to a Lahore trying to shrug off the effects of COVID-19.
“You cannot make a general statement that the judiciary could be pressurized. If you have a particular incident in mind, you can find redress in it within the judicial system” he said in a brief and crisp speech.
Justice Gulzar was reacting to remarks by senior bar member Ali Ahmed Kurd who had spoken with emotion about the relief the average Pakistani didn’t get from the court. “This is a country of 22 crore people and not of just one general,” Kurd had roared in his usual popular style.
His speech, in which he spoke of missing persons with the same passion as those who do reach courts but are denied, took away any pretense of this being an academic conference. The tag of the people’s assembly that was given to past Asma Jahangir conferences and about which well-known lawyer Sulema Jahangir had spoken in her welcome address Saturday, quickly returned.
Ms Jahangir, executive director of Asma’s law firm AGHS, advocated a free discussion of ideas. She took exception to the fact how Islamabad had denied visas to several international guests slated to speak at the conference.
She wondered at how the agents of disruption and violence enjoyed free space whereas pro people minds were not allowed to meet. Even when, she recalled, “Dissent is a sign of strength,” she said to ovation by an overflowing audience.
Before Kurd attempted to set his own agenda for the inaugural session, envoys from Canada, the Netherlands, Britain, the UNDP and the European Union congratulated the organizers for hosting the much valued, the most necessary event.
The envoy of the Netherlands pointed out how the space for civil society was shrinking the world over — and consequently, how important it was to fight the encroachers.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the British High Commissioner who put emphasis on the need to continue within the conversations or dialogue. He cited the racism allegations of racism recently voiced by Azeem Rafiq, a British citizen of Pakistani origins, to highlight what complications a reluctance to discuss an issue can lead to.
After the welcome address and notes of appreciation by the distinguished foreign diplomats, the meeting was thrown open to the Pakistani panelists. That was when Ali Ahmed Kurd came into action.
His address was accompanied by slogans and clapping from those present in the ‘people’s assembly’. The organisers had to intervene at least twice during the speech, once through the newly elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association Ahsan Bhoon and on the other occasion through the master of ceremonies, Senator Azam Nazir Tarar.
In his own paper that he read at the conference Bhoon spoke about the unfairness of certain laws that according to him were against the spirit of democracy: such as the 162-1F of the Constitution that makes incumbent upon public office holders to qualify as sadiq and ameen as also Article 184-3 which he explained violated Article 20 of the Constitution.
Bhoon called Pakistan’s most active judiciary in the world and there was indeed plenty of activity on stage as the judges on the panel sought to react to Ali Ahmed Kurd’s remarks. This was of course with the exception of Chief Justice Lahore High Court Justice Muhammad Ameer Bhatti who spoke in a matter of fact tone about the real brief of the inaugural session: judiciary’s role in ensuring and strengthening democracy.
Justice Athar Minallah thanked Kurd for inspiring the discussion. He said he would discard the original draft that he had written for the occasion and speak on points raised by Kurd.
Justice Minallah then went on to quote examples from Pakistan’s checkered history where the courts and then civil society both had failed the country — allusions which were then expanded on by Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court.
Justice Isa came up with examples from Quran -and Pakistan’s history to justify the argument for women’s rights and freedom of expression etc. “You don’t beg for democracy. It’s your right to have democracy,” said Justice Qazi Faez Isa as he talked about the merits of for seeking forgiveness and repenting and about the need for muhasba or self-scrutiny and introspection.
Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Gulzar Ahmed said the muhasba was on and the Supreme Court judges as well judges in high courts and lower tiers of judiciary were working hard and persistently
He tried to dispel the general statement that courts were under pressure, “Mujhay koyee nahin batata (no one dictates me).”
“I have always given decisions according to my conscience and this is true for all my fellow judges,” he said firmly.
At other sessions on the first day of the conference, dissent, rights of the marginalised and the human rights situation in the region came under discussion.
At a session for freedom of expression, Steven Butler, Asia coordinator Committee to Protect journalists said, there are many ways censorship is imposed.
Christine Chung of the South Asia team leader UN high commissioner of human rights said freedom of the press is a matter of life and death.
Famous Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir condemns the denial of visas to Indian and other foreign guests invited for the Asma Jahangir Conference. “Even a street hawker in Pakistan knows that the media in Pakistan is not free,” Mir said.
Given a regional perspective he said 37-name list of states working against freedom of press in countries Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Mir pointed out the case of kidnapping and assault of senior journalist Matiullah Jan to highlight how the law and enforcers were afraid to reveal who the perpetrators were. Similarly those behind the attack on journalist Asad Toor were never identified. He asked the Chief Justice of Pakistan to take suo motu notice of assaults on Toor, Jan and Absar Alam to negate impression that apex judiciary is not under pressure.
The conference was attended by large number of people, the lawyers forming the greater portion of those present. Journalists and other members of the civil society were also present to listen to the speakers and interact with them.
Joining the discussion online, prominent Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra said journalists must look for new windows to get through to the people and for dissemination of information. “Small new outlets of alternative voices are being heard,” she said. “New digital websites are gaining followers. India and Pakistan must listen to the voices of people.”
Munizae Jahangir said those who speak of war are given visas whereas those who talk of peace are refused visas and are confined to social media.
“Cybercrime laws are being used against leaders whose party passed these laws,” Jahangir said. “We are here to uphold human dignity.”
At the panel Conflict in Kashmir: Bypassing Kashmiris on day one of AJCONF 2021 moderated by journalist Tariq Naqash, Ms Naila Altaf Kayani, a social and human rights activist from Muzaffarabad, said that Kashmir and Afghanistan are two different issues and should not be intermingled. She emphasised that terminologies play an important role in a struggle so we should be very careful in using terminologies while presenting our case.
She maintained that keeping in view the magnitude and intensity of the atrocities being committed by India, we should not use the term human rights violations; instead, we should always refer to them as war crimes. And they must be pursued under universal jurisdiction of the international criminal court of war crime tribunals.
She also pointed out that Kashmiris were bypassed on many occasions not only by the external actors but also by local leaders when they gradually replaced the nomenclature “Azad Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir” by the “Government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.”
In his presentation through video link from Ankara, noted journalist Syed Iftikhar Gillani emphasised that Kashmiris are being systemically disempowered. He said old approaches need to be reviewed. Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) should be brought into the conversation because it is time to empower and strengthen institutions and people in AJK. He said AJK’s indigenous leadership needs to be brought forward and a proactive approach should be adopted.
He said the concept of geo-economics, which is the new focal point of Pakistan’s foreign policy, involves reforms and several sets of measures. He reiterated that genuine peace is possible only by empowering Kashmiris.
Rafiq Dar said that bilateralism has dented the Kashmir issue. Every Kashmiris stands for total freedom, independence and sovereignty that was snatched from them in 1947. He said the UN prohibits both India and Pakistan from effecting any territorial change in Kashmir but on Aug 5, 2019 India unilaterally changed the status of the territory. Pakistan should rescind the Shimla agreement and let a dialogue process take place between all three parties. Government and political leaders of Pakistan should show magnanimity in respect of a solution to the Kashmir issue. Pakistan should not favour any particular ideology and thus hurt the sentiments of other segments of Kashmiri society. He also stressed upon Pakistan to re-activate its diplomatic relations in keeping with human rights violations. He said Pakistan should integrate.
Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) with AJK and form a national revolutionary government or give GB the same status like AJK and form a single joint independent council, comprising nominees of both governments, and give them free hand to represent the Kashmir case.
Anchor-person and author Nasim Zehra said Pakistan lacks clarity on India policy and subsequently the decision-making on Kashmir is weak. Pakistan is doing a lot but that’s not sufficient. It needs to move much faster. Otherwise, it’s a matter of months, the current Indian dispensation will leave nothing for it, she said.
Dr Ather Zia, anthropologist, author and poet of Kashmiri origin, said from the USA through video-link that the Kashmir issue is getting re-internationalized after India militarily and forcibly stripped the region of its autonomy in 2019. She used the concept of sanctioned ignorance (Spivak 1999) to trace how the Kashmir issue and the demands of Kashmiris have been overwritten, invalidated, and criminalized by India. The analysis contends that the Indian discourse obfuscated the Kashmir issue which led to the waning of international attention and solidarity for the Kashmiris. She said that forging a global solidarity for Kashmir will entail understanding the issue in its original historical context and reinstate it as a genuine people’s resistance.
Holding great attraction apparently were guests from some remote parts of the country. Baba Jan from Gilgit and Manzoor Pashteen and Mohsin Dawar from the former Fata areas were star attractions on the first day of the conference that returns the calendar after a two-year suspension because of Covid-19.
On a panel from Impact of Talibanization on Women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mahbouba Seraj said “We have to enter the picture. [The Taliban] should open schools and universities and then we can talk about sharia.”
“At the moment we have lost all the institutions that were there to support the women and over the years we worked very hard for it.” Ministry of women affairs needs to be back, and the human rights commission needs to be reestablished, she said.
Shagufta Malik from ANP asked as to how you can speak to Taliban when they have killed our children. Well known journalist Farzana Ali said it’s hard to report from KP, when there is a threat to your life. Sima Samar former minister of women affairs in Afghanistan said Renowned Afghan woman rights activist says Taliban have converted Women Ministry to Vice & Virtue Ministry & that is how they value women rights. Women from Afghanistan appealed to Pakistan not to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs.
On the panel session Chaos in Afghanistan, on communication with banned organisations, Afghan journalist Lotufullah Najfizada said that the first thing that the Taliban should do was to agree to disagree. He added, “I don’t think Afghanistan does have a capacity issue, it has a governance issue that the Taliban have to resolve.”
Veteran politician Afrasiab Khattak said that the Doha Agreement was the basis of the collapse of the state system in Afghanistan. He said that Afghanistan was the only country in the world that was being ruled without any law and constitution. “A Talib is everything wherever he stands”
MNA Mohsin Dawar said “The foreign minister of Pakistan is acting like a foreign minister of the Taliban.”
The session Curtailing Freedom of Expression by Legitimizing Censorship in South Asia, was moderated by Zarrar Khuhro, with CPJ Asia Programme Coordinator Steven Butler, journalist Hamid Mir, Emmy-award nominated journalist Barkha Dutt, lawyer and rights activist Vrinda Grover, journalist Munizae Jahangir, senior counseling editor of The Print Jyoti Malhotra, and OHCHR South Asia team leader Christine Chung.
It was resolved that states in South Asia are no longer listening to voices of the people and that they should be made to listen to people till these voices become a deafening shout. Peaceful protests are trampled upon in these States, as asking for one’s right is viewed by the powers that be as sedition.
At the same time, the panel resolved that those who resort to war mongering are not only appeased by the authorities but they are also seen bowing down before them. This creates an atmosphere of deep suspicion and distrust and sends the signals that only force can prevail.
Speakers further said that censorship in this day and age, rather than accomplish the goals of the censor, backfires on them. The very act of suppressing news draws more attention to that news, and effectively deepen the mistrust between people and the State. The panel called the States of South Asia to open dialogue with dissenting voices and to dispense with coercive methods they have become so fond of.
The session Victim Blaming and the Hard Road to Justice was moderated by Usama Khilji, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Pakistan Wouter Plomp, lawyer and rights activist Vrinda Grover, executive director of Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad, Ombudsperson (KP) Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Rukshanda Naz. The panel resolved that access to justice can be facilitated by first believing victims and survivors. Furthermore, women should band together and support women in the workplace, women’s movements, and set up committees to enforce anti-harassment laws.
The speakers also said that media representation needs to be sensitive to consent and not normalize sexual violence. On the justice spectrum, the panelists felt that criminal defamation laws should be revisited, and judges, lawyers and prosecution agencies be given sensitivity training.