Thu, Nov 15, 2007 - Page 9 News List

A lawyer's long fight for democracy puts him in a familiar place


Twenty-five years ago, when US president Ronald Reagan treated Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq to a White House state dinner, a promising young lawyer out of Cambridge University languished in jail. He had protested too loudly, and too often, about the lack of democracy in his country.

Now grayer and at the peak of his profession, the lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, 63, sits in a Pakistani jail once again, reduced to seeing family visitors for 20 minutes a day, and accepting bags of fruit and bedding for some basic comfort.

His crime is the same: making too much noise about democracy under the nose of a military ruler whom Washington has deemed indispensable to its strategic and security interests in the region, where the Taliban and al-Qaida thrive.

On Saturday, as US President George W. Bush both pushed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to lift his de facto martial law and praised him as a friend of the US, Ahsan was ending his first week in a solitary cell, this time for leading the lawyers' movement that has become the symbol of resistance against the Musharraf government.

Ahsan's detention at once reflects how much has changed in Pakistan in a quarter century and how much has stayed the same. The lawyers' movement he leads, which emerged only this year, is part of a budding civil society here, separate and untainted by the military.

At the same time, many of the old ways persist, like the dominance of the Pakistani military in the country's politics -- encouraged, many say, by decades of support from the US.

For Ahsan's family in particular, there are eerie and disturbing parallels between the days when the US armed Zia with billions of dollars to fight a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and today, when the Bush administration has bankrolled Musharraf with an estimated US$10 billion to fight "terrorism."

On both occasions, they contend, US realpolitik interests trumped the interests of democratic rule for Pakistanis.

"Both my parents were in jail when Reagan welcomed Zia to the White House with a 21-gun salute," said Ali Ahsan, the son of Aitzaz Ahsan, also a lawyer. "Now Musharraf is the current White House's blue-eyed boy."

The younger Ahsan said he found it hard to believe that "essentially the same play is being reenacted."

"I thought by this age we would be beyond it," he said.

Of course, history never repeats itself in precisely the same way and in each iteration of military rule here the generals have reigned over a somewhat different Pakistan. Likewise the US policy has varied, too.

The independent TV stations with acerbic news coverage, which Musharraf has now taken off the air with his emergency decree, did not even exist a decade ago. The buoyant stock market and commercial markets of Karachi have likewise changed the statist economy.

While Reagan made few concessions for US support of right-wing dictators in pursuit of the larger aims of the Cold War, Bush today is in the far more delicate position of having made promotion of democracy -- especially in the Islamic world -- the announced centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Not least among the historical turnabouts, the mujahidin Reagan supported against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are the distant echo of the Islamic radicals the US fights in the region today.

In the view of some Pakistanis, the grand schemes of the political and military leaders in both countries have played out at great personal cost to Pakistanis like Ahsan. His wife, Bushra, who was under house arrest during Zia's rule for protesting in favor of women's rights, said she used to remind US diplomats in the 1980s that "your military aid to Pakistan is hostile to the people of Pakistan."

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