01/22/2008, 00.00
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In Europe, Musharraf barters the fight against terrorism for human rights

by Vincenzo Faccioli Pintozzi
The European tour of Pakistan's president got underway with a public meeting yesterday. Musharraf says he wants to change his country's negative image, but he is not talking about the hamstrung judicial system, and he characterises as "obsessive" the West's attention to human rights and democracy.

Brussels (AsiaNews) - The upcoming parliamentary elections, democracy, freedom of expression, and terrorism of Islamic origin: these are the tangles that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf must unravel over his eight-day official visit to European institutions, to obtain a mandate of credibility from the West (the United States aside) and the legitimisation of his role as president. At first glance,  it seems that all that has been needed to maintain good relations between Pakistan and Europe are a few vague promises and adequate support for European economic policies.

The first official conversations held with the Pakistani leader demonstrate, in fact, that neither Islamabad nor Brussels has any intention of addressing topics related to human rights. In the meeting with the press and with members of the European parliament, held yesterday morning in the Belgian capital, Musharraf declared that he wanted "free and  democratic" elections "more than anything else", and he promised to respect the election results, expected in the second week of February. These parliamentary elections, which have been awaited for some time, are nonetheless hampered by the boycott launched by the opposition, and above all by the assassination of the popular leader Benazir Bhutto at the end of December.

After his declaration of good will, Musharraf asked the West to "understand Pakistan's difficult internal situation", and in consequence, "to interrupt the obsessive campaign in favour of human rights and democracy". The former commander of Pakistan's army then replied to the question from a European member of parliament on terrorism: Musharraf emphasised the "primary role" played by his country in the fight against this phenomenon, and gave assurances that he wanted use "every means" to keep the influence of al-Qaeda away from his country's borders. Nonetheless, he added, "this conflict has cost the nation dearly in terms of human rights and democracy". He suggested that in practise the requests for democracy from the international community should be attenuated in the name of a greater good, the fight against Islamic extremism.

The president recalled that Pakistan "faces a rise in domestic terrorism, which costs human lives, and a Talebanisation of its society that threatens to undermine the equilibrium of the entire area". He then blamed this phenomenon on neighbouring Afghanistan, which, headed by an international contingent, has driven the leaders of the Islamic guerrilla warfare just a short distance away: "They are the ones who bring obscurantism and intolerance to both of our countries, and their presence in Pakistan arises from their expulsion from Afghanistan".

But Musharraf did not refer to the ease with which the Taleban militias are able to branch out from the tribal areas on the Afghan border to move down into the Swat valley, where last month they destroyed millennia-old statues of the Buddha. The lack of army intervention against these guerrillas must be traced back to the absence of troops in the region: these have been called back to the cities after the presidential coup d'etat, leaving the countryside to the fundamentalists.

Nor did Musharraf make any mention of the overweening power of the more than four thousand Islamic schools, the madrassas, which until a year ago enjoyed privileged tax status and military protection. The madrassas thanked the government by organising bloody internal protests, calling for the official introduction of sharia law and the expulsion of all non-Islamic religious minorities from the country.

All of these negative phenomena - Musharraf insisted - "have no influence on the domestic economy, which continues to grow: the attacks in recent months have not killed any foreigners, who are respected in our territory given their importance from the economic point of view. This is an importance which, I hope, will continue to grow". It is likely that this year, in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland), Musharraf will ask for an increase of international investment in Pakistan.

Yesterday, the president also met with the committee on foreign affairs of the European parliament, and, behind closed doors, with president Javier Solana and NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. He assured everyone of the end of the military dictatorship, and of respect for democratic processes, but he did not answer questions about the judicial system in Pakistan, where he ousted the president of the supreme court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, calling him "a corrupt and inept man, who works to destroy everything that Pakistan has built over time".

Chaudry - who is considered a secularist judge and has always been against the military dictatorship under which Musharraf directed the country over the past seven years - has gathered around him all of the opposition among the country's judicial and intellectual figures. During the violent demonstrations against the decision to remove him from his post, which lasted for the entire month of November, the police arrested more than four thousand independent lawyers and judges.

Musharraf's aim is to change Europe's "distorted and negative view of present-day Pakistan". So far it he seems to be succeeding: in the name of the struggle against fundamentalism and of the economy, Europe appears willing to believe him.

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See also
Delay “expected” in Pakistan Election
Pope prays for an end to the violence that followed Bhutto’s assassination
Attack in Rawalpindi, Benazir Bhutto killed
Lal Masjid: the mosque that wants to talebanise the country (overview)
Musharraf announces end to the state of emergency