As Pakistan gears up for parliamentary elections, Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan talks to DW about the threats posed by Taliban militants, and evaluates President Zardari's PPP's time in power.
DW: It is the first time in the history of Pakistan that an elected government has completed its term. How do you analyze the evolution of democracy and democratic institutions in Pakistan?
Zohra Yusuf: If you see it in terms of the completion of five years by a civilian government, it is a tremendous development. It is historical and a sign of maturity in Pakistani politics. But the government did not deliver much. There were issues of governance, and the Pakistan People's Party's (PPP) government failed on many fronts. Now the Pakistani people have high hopes from forthcoming parliamentary elections. They want things to change in the country. But at the same time there are fears as well, primarily because of the security situation in the country. As we have seen in the past year, there have been many terrorist attacks and high profile leaders have been assassinated. Ordinary people have been targeted on sectarian and ethnic grounds. So while one looks forward to elections, the security situation continues to pose a challenge.
Would you also give credit to the Pakistani judiciary and military for ensuring that democracy is not derailed in the country?
Both the army and the judiciary posed immense challenges to the former PPP government, so I would not give them much credit. They interfered in governance to a great extent. The military, however, has realized that direct intervention will not be acceptable domestically and internationally. Judicial activism was at its peak but the Supreme Court categorically said it would not support any military coup. So, yes, things are evolving in Pakistan.
But there are groups like the Taliban which do not want democracy to flourish in Pakistan. They also don't want elections to be held. Do you think the Islamists are powerful enough to sabotage forthcoming elections?
I don't think they will be able to sabotage elections to an extent that they won't be held at all. But threats from the terrorists will certainly effect the voter turn out, and it is possible that they will try to create panic by targeting some political leaders. But I think it is quite late to derail elections now.
Pro-democracy forces in Pakistan argue that the continuation of civilian democracy will weaken extremism in Pakistan but we see that Islamist movement in Pakistan has become stronger over the past five years.
You are right. I fear that even when the new government comes into power, it will not come down hard on these extremist groups. Now the political parties are talking about negotiating with the Taliban. Even the Awami National Party (ANP) in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province - which has been the biggest victim of the Taliban attacks - is considering this option.
Are you and your organization in favor of negotiating with the Taliban?
Absolutely not. I don't see what we can negotiate with them about. They are interested in seizing power. They want Shariah law in the country. They have said clearly time and again they don't believe in the constitution of Pakistan nor in democracy. So I don't understand what the basis would be of these talks with the Taliban.
Former military dictator and president of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf has returned to Pakistan from Dubai after five years of self-imposed exile. Do you see a role for him in politics? Shouldn't he be tried in various cases against him that are pending in Pakistani courts?
The cases against him are related to the killings of Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as well as keeping the judges of the apex court under house arrest. He should definitely be tried. I also think his presence in Pakistan won't make much of a difference in politics. He is quite marginalized. His political party - All Pakistan Muslim League - does not have much of a presence in the country. But he should be allowed to contest elections.
With regard to human rights, we know that Islamists regularly target sectarian minorities in the country, but of late we have seen that even common Pakistanis have staged attacks on minorities. The Lahore incident where a mob burnt down Christian-owned houses is an example. What does this say about today's society?
It is true that Pakistani society has become very religiously intolerant over the years. But the problem is with the laws. As we always say, when you have bad laws, they will be misused. Such is the case with the blasphemy law. The Islamization of Pakistan is an ongoing process, which involves the state as well as the media. It is very easy to stir up people's sentiments and mobilize crowds as happened in the Lahore incident last month. The people who attacked Christians in Lahore probably did not know much about the alleged blasphemy case. They were just told that somebody had insulted the prophet or desecrated the Koran and it was enough to make them violent.
How would you rate the former PPP government's record with respect to human rights?
I should talk about the positives as well. In the past five years, there was practically a moratorium on death penalties. There was one hanging in 2008 after the PPP came into power. Last November, a person who had attacked a soldier was hanged. Otherwise, there were no executions. There has been considerable legislation which supported the rights of women. The government passed laws to setup the National Commission of Human Rights. But little has been done to implement these laws. What also needs to be appreciated is the level of tolerance the government showed towards opposition, towards dissenting voices, criticism against it, as well as the media. But governance was really bad. Human rights violations continued. Non-state actors are violating human rights more than the state.
Zohra Yusuf is chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).