Musharraf’s dictatorship spreads to the UK

Last Friday the President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf was asked to give a lecture at London‘s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) about Pakistan‘s domestic and regional challenges. The lecture was described as an “embarrassment” by a number of notable British Pakistanis. I was unaware of the extent to which Musharraf had gone to limit the rights of free speech until Friday, when he supposedly downgraded and accused a senior journalist, M.Ziauddin for “casting aspersions” and “undermining our forces and your own country”.

Having heard the speech and the question put forward by Ziauddin, I must say that I do not think that what he asked was unreasonable. The exact exchange was as follows:

MZ: “Ziauddin from Dawn newspaper, Pakistan. You talk very highly of our law and order agency’s skills in the case of Benazir’s I mean it’s for the foreign… (inaudible) …and then you have talked very high(ly) of our custodial control of our nuclear assets but when high profile suspected terrorists like Rashid Rauf give us a slip and escape, then (then) the people here as well as in Pakistan start suspecting of a skills in these matters. Your comments on that please.”

PM: “Yeah sometimes it is people like you who cast such aspersions and reinforce such views. unfortunately. Er, it is…”

MZ (distant voice): “What am I to do about that?”

Chair (clearly): “What is he to do about that?”

PM (speaking to one of his staff in Urdu): “Yeh Ziauddin hai? Huh?” Okay, ya.”

(Rant begins) “Yes, yes indeed. Er, my remark stands. It is, it is, it is, er it is such aspersions that are cast when we highlight such aspersions and bring undermine our own forces, our own Pakistani forces, your Pakistani forces, your country, such things happen everywhere, and if we start casting aspersions that it is the intelligence which has probably left them, and that is how the foreign media also takes it up, and they think that our intelligence is mollified, our armed forces are with the Taleban, this is what happens. Now actually it happened, yes indeed, it is indeed very sad, it is indeed we trying, we are going to try people under court marshall, for anyone who has not looked after this man and allowed him to escape. So this, these things happens, it happens. So what is the issue? Now you are trying to cast aspersions that it is the intelligence and therefore it is all mollified, and therefore and good name of army, I shouldn’t have praised the army, I shouldn’t have praised my intelligence organisation because they are involved in the escape of Rashid Rauf. I don’t think that is true, and please shake these notions away, it is an incident which we need to address.” (End of rant)

Now, from this exchange, you can see that the question posed by Ziauddin was in fact an open question – it asked for Musharraf’s comments on suspicions within the Pakistani community against the law and order agencies, which I assume in this case means the Pakistani intelligence (ISI) – it does not seem like an allegation towards the President himself. Musharraf’s rant however makes him (and the whole incident) come across as very conspicuous to say the least. Some bloggers, journalists and academics have accused Musharraf of insulting Ziauddin during the event by his dismissive remarks. David Blair of the Telegraph writes:

“As soon as Ziauddin, the Islamabad editor of Dawn, a Pakistani daily, rose to ask his question, Musharraf visibly bristled. Instantly, his demeanour changed from being relaxed and confident to tense and hostile … (his) disgraceful response to an entirely reasonable query spoke volumes about Musharraf. He will question the patriotism of any Pakistani critic – betraying his essential intolerance of dissent. I wonder whether Musharraf would have responded with such rage had a British journalist asked precisely the same question? I suspect he would have answered firmly but politely. Musharraf treats his fellow Pakistanis with contempt while oozing charm for the benefit of foreigners.”

But this has not been the only report about the incident which took place on Friday. Speaking to a senior acquaintance earlier today I came to learn that after the event Musharraf was well and truly frazzled by Ziauddin’s question, palpitating and swearing about the journalist, and throwing around remarks such as “he must be dealt with” and inciting British Pakistani’s to “beat up Ziauddin”. Insiders also claim that Musharraf’s cronies (including Commerce Minister, Akhtar Khan) are now “losing even the shred of respect they had for him after insulting such a senior academic and journalist.” I decided to check other sources to back up this story, and I found a few other shocking statements from people who were with Musharraf in the moments following this lecture.

Musharraf’s dictatorship no longer limits itself to Pakistan, but has now spread it’s wings to the West, he is now freer than ever to incite others and openly threaten anyone he believes is being unpatriotic (against his regime). In Britain, we are given the liberty to speak freely, we are able to question and criticise our country for what we believe is right or wrong. Musharraf says that he believes in democracy, and a society that is equal and just. But where, I ask, is the freedom and justice in this?

[Added 29 January 2008]:

Not surprisingly, Musharraf’s irrational approach to this incident has now provoked questions from Gordon Brown at No.10 earlier today and a media investigation (I use the term intentionally) into the disappearance of Rashid Rauf. Today, the Guardian published a two-page spread on the missing person and raises questions about the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence.

I would love to know the President’s reaction.