LAMABAD // For two years, Tahira Abdullah, a veteran rights activist, has been agitating to have Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry restored to his seat as chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. Of late, she has been critical of the policies of the president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister.
As political turmoil has intensified in the country, police under the orders of Mr Zardari have moved hard against opposition political activists and lawyers. Hundreds have been arrested. Under orders of the president, police dragged Ms Abdullah from her residence in a raid last week. News of her arrest swept through the media and was met with immediate condemnation. Many were outraged that the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is known for its liberal outlook and has campaigned for democracy and human rights, would resort to such tactics to deter and intimidate protesters.
Ms Abdullah herself, released after a few hours, could not come to terms with the apparent contradiction. Two days after her arrest, she broke down on a talk show. With tears, she complained to Sherry Rehman, the information minister, on a talk show, of being humiliated and insulted by other members of the party. "They have behaved so contemptuously, so insulting, so humiliating, so condescending, so patronising, so flippant, so joking, so non-serious," Ms Abdullah said, her voice quivering. "The right hand of PPP doesn't know what the left hand is doing. Please save the party of Benazir Bhutto ... Please save Pakistan."
Ms Rehman tried to comfort her and apologised on behalf of her party. "I can understand your pain. I am sorry Tahira," Ms Rehman said. "We are with you". The News, the country's leading daily newspaper, in an editorial yesterday called Ms Rehman's apology "hollow". Ms Abdullah's tears were sincere, the editorial observed. "The tears come with the realisation that those values which she believed in - justice, peace, equality - had been trampled at her own front door by the very party which she believed was going to uphold and protect those values.
"She wept not at the indignity which she bore with the stoicism that most of our civil-society activists have, but at the loss of her faith in a political structure that, in her own brief detention, had shown itself morally and intellectually bankrupt, purblind to all but the narrow goals related to the retention of power and, ultimately, unworthy of her support." Some analysts, however, question the obsession of the lawyers and activists to restore Mr Chaudhry. While the Taliban are setting up their own courts in the Swat region, the campaign to restore Mr Chaudhry is largely seen as a symbolic fight that has consumed the country, overshadowing the threat posed by Talibanisation.
The episode also epitomised a bigger problem for the liberals in Pakistan. "They are faced with the choice of having to stay silent on the autocratic behaviour of a left-leaning civilian or standing with the right-leaning PML-N for the rule of law and civil liberties," said Arif Rafiq, a political analyst. "Pakistani liberals, including many major human rights activists, are reluctant to criticise the PPP out of a fear it will benefit the political right," Mr Rafiq added.
"The inconsistent application of principles to advocacy by Pakistani liberals feeds into mainstream public perceptions that they are stooges of the PPP or even the West. It helps discredit the liberal agenda, which has the potential to reach a greater audience inside the country. "The PPP in recent years has been all too willing to compromise on these issues for the sake of power." But Ms Rehman also seemed to have had enough. She resigned late on Friday night in protest against Mr Zardari's insistence that critical media coverage be stifled, reports in local media said.
Mr Zardari has ordered a ban on Geo, the country's most popular television network. Geo has been consistently critical of what it calls Mr Zardari's backtracking on public promises. "President Zardari had taken offence at media's reminder to the public of his promises about the restoration of the Nov 3 2007 judiciary," Mir Ibrahim Rehman, the chief executive officer of Geo, said in a statement. "Ironically, when Geo was shut down by General Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto had visited Geo's offices and had categorically stated 'I will ensure that Geo will never be treated like this in a future PPP government'. Sadly, her legacy does not seem to have survived her, at least not in the President's House".