· Ex-chief justice, wife and children held in Islamabad
· No school or check-ups for disabled eight-year-old
Declan Walsh in Islamabad
Friday February 8, 2008
Pakistan’s youngest political prisoner lives in a house on a hill just a few hundred metres from President Pervez Musharraf’s soaring presidential palace in Islamabad. Little about him is typical. He is physically disabled, spends his days watching cartoons on TV, and is eight years old.
Bilaj Chaudhry is the son of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s former chief justice. Since he was fired by Musharraf three months ago, the judge, his wife and four children have been locked in their house. Barbed wire barricades block the street, armed police and intelligence agents swarm outside, and visitors are forbidden. The phones have been cut, the water supply disrupted, and an employee who delivers food is carefully searched. Even stepping on to the front lawn is forbidden.
For Musharraf’s critics, who now include several retired generals, their ordeal highlights the parlous state of the law as Pakistan hurtles towards elections on February 18. The detention is “entirely unlawful” said a report by the Lahore-based Rule of Law project yesterday.
Chaudhry has remained silent, communicating only through angry letters smuggled out to fellow lawyers. But this week his 16-year-old daughter, Palwasha, gave the Guardian a rare interview using a mobile phone. “I’m sitting upstairs and I can see the intelligence men and police from my window. There’s maybe 50 of them,” she said. “We can’t leave.”
The A-level student – nicknamed “the commander” by the judge’s allies for her ability to smuggle things in and out of the house – said life inside the five-bedroom jail was difficult. A padlock hangs on the front gate and nobody can enter or leave – not even Palwasha’s brother, Bilaj, who has been disabled since birth. “He needs a monthly checkup. But that is physically impossible, as you can see,” she said.
The Saudi ambassador, who was allowed to visit, tried to lure her father away with the promise of a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. He politely refused.
Officials from the British Council were allowed to conduct a private exam for Palwasha’s 18-year-old sister, Ifra. Palwasha herself has read and re-read the Harry Potter books, and fears she will miss her A-levels this summer. “I miss my studies and I miss my friends,” she said.
The government claims the Chaudhry family is at liberty to leave. The reality is very different – police with batons and teargas drove back a crowd of supporters who tried to reach the house this week.
Despite numerous attempts, the Guardian was unable to reach a government spokesman for comment yesterday.
Dubbed “Pakistan’s forgotten man” by Newsweek, Chaudhry’s plight has been largely ignored by Musharraf’s western allies, who are reluctant to confront him on the issue. A spokesman for the British high commission in Islamabad said it called for the release of all political detainees, but that it was “not our business to get involved in specific cases”.
Lawyers say that stand is eroding popular support for the west. “The US and UK should consider one thing – they are rapidly losing their goodwill in this country,” said Athar Minallah, a lawyer.
Meanwhile, Musharraf is pressing ahead with efforts to crush all lawyer-led protests. Last weekend his interim government extended the detention of three senior lawyers, also held since November, by another month.
“This is a disgrace,” shouted lawyer Tariq Mahmoud, surrounded by police at his front gate in Islamabad. “What have I done? Am I the biggest terrorist in this country? I have told my children to leave. This is not a country where one can live.”
The baton of resistance may be taken up by an unlikely group. On Tuesday several hundred retired generals, admirals and servicemen held a demonstration in Rawalpindi to demand the president’s resignation. Musharraf dismissed them as “insignificant”, telling the Financial Times: “Most of them are ones who served under me, and I kicked them out.”
But the sight of army stalwarts chanting anti-Musharraf slogans on the doorstep of the powerful military establishment may presage more turmoil after the poll.
The chief justice’s imprisonment has not become a major election issue, partly due to continuing restrictions on the media. But even Musharraf’s aides admit his handling of Chaudhry has been wrong. “We said it was a mistake. We told Mr Musharraf as much as early as last March,” said a senior aide, Mushahid Hussain.
Meanwhile the judge remains at home, reading and praying, said his daughter. “We are very proud of him,” Palwasha said. “I am very conscious that in the end victory will be ours.”
Human rights groups accuse President Pervez Musharraf of waging a vendetta against Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice he fired in November. During a recent tour of Europe Musharraf aides circulated an eight-page memo filled with accusations against the judge.
Pakistan’s supreme court dismissed many of the serious charges, nepotism, fraud and abuse of office, last July. But the document also included fresh accusations, mostly in the form of anecdotes, ranging from the comic to the bizarre.
Chaudhry was guilty of “highhandedness”, it said, by making civil servants wait hours to see him. He was accused of berating officials in Lahore after they provided him with an old-model Mercedes during a trip to the city. In a visit to a government lodge in the mountains, it was claimed, he stopped a guest from using his toilet.
Chaudhry was accused of an “obsession for self projection” in the media and of bullying state TV into broadcasting his appearances.
A few weeks later Chaudhry smuggled a letter from his house in which he rejected the charges. “They are flimsy and ridiculous,” he wrote. “After all, a prisoner must also have his say.”
Musharraf’s new chief justice, Abdul Hameed Dogar, lives a few doors away. He has yet to rule on the matter.