Dawn Editorial 19 December 2019

Musharraf verdict

THE verdict in the treason case against retired Gen Pervez Musharraf marks a seismic shift in Pakistan’s history. It was thus far inconceivable that any military dictator this country has ever known would be convicted of high treason, as defined in Article 6 of the same Constitution that he had abrogated or held in abeyance.
After a trial that lasted nearly six years, the special court set up to hear the case has unanimously found the former army chief guilty of the offence; Mr Musharraf had suspended the Constitution on Nov 3, 2007, when he imposed emergency in the country.
In a decision announced on Tuesday, the bench awarded him the death penalty, with one judge dissenting. The reaction, as expected with an issue of such consequence and given the implications pertaining to institutional equilibrium, has ranged from exultation to outrage.
However, whether one agrees or not with a verdict that has — at the very least — huge symbolic significance for all concerned, some of the more excessive sentiments on display are troubling. After all, the bench that arrived at the decision was no inconsequential forum. It comprised three superior court judges who are part of the same judiciary often lauded for its resurgent independence, such as when it disqualified a sitting prime minister not too long ago.
Ironically, this sense of autonomy is often seen as having taken root in the very circumstances that led to Mr Musharraf imposing the emergency in 2007 — specifically, the legal challenges to his re-election as president that were being heard by the Supreme Court then.
Some might see this as the wheel having come full circle. Judicial independence cuts both ways, depending on where one is standing; therein lies its majesty. And while Dawn has always opposed the death penalty under any circumstances, this is hardly the end of the road for the former military dictator. There are legal remedies available to him as part of his constitutionally protected right to due process. His lawyers, and the PTI government, have already announced they will appeal the special court’s decision.
We may be in uncharted territory in terms of specifics, but this is yet another critical juncture for the one-step-forward-two-steps-back democratic process in this country.
The situation calls for restraint and sober reflection from all quarters rather than parochial chest-thumping. A court of law has held an individual accountable for his actions, which is as it should be; legal certainty and predictability in the administration of justice is necessary for a well-ordered society. The judgement has not smeared any institution; rather it affords an opportunity for the latter to distance itself from the extra-constitutional actions of an individual.
Fighting for one’s country does not preclude the commission of treachery. If that were so, two senior uniformed officials would not have been court-martialled and convicted on charges of espionage earlier this year.


Protect the poor

IN the middle of an intense austerity drive, it is important to ask who is looking after the interests of the poor. In a democratic dispensation, the pain and anguish of the people gets channelled upward into the corridors of power through the elected representatives. But at the moment, much of the government is being run by people who are not elected, the finance division being one of the biggest examples. It is the seat of today’s austerity agenda, and where the purse strings are being controlled with meticulous care for the interests of the country’s billionaires and textile barons, its bankers and creditors, its high officialdom and their perks. Through it all one must ask, who is looking out for the poor?
One person who evidently has the interests of the poor weighing on his mind is the prime minister. In part this is because, despite the divided opinion regarding his often controversial politics, his conversation — and previous actions such as building a free cancer hospital — has indicated an interest in the welfare of the poor. In equal part it may be because his popularity is precious to him, as it would be to any politician. Of late, the prime minister has been talking of soup kitchens and shelter for the hungry and homeless, especially in this chilly winter. He has also detailed plans for providing housing to low-income segments where the country’s real estate market is largely in the throes of elite capture, as well as emphasised greater social service delivery through the databases built up by the Benazir Income Support Programme, which now form the foundation of the PTI’s expanded Ehsaas programme. Unfortunately, there are not many in this government who can credibly be seen to have the interests of the poor at heart — beyond spouting the usual political rhetoric that is. It is, therefore, important that the finance division learn to work more closely with the prime minister to ensure that austerity is targeted in a way that makes the burden fall more on those who can bear it the most, and that the resources necessary to make these programmes successful are not cut. Today, we can see, for example, that the shelters announced with some fanfare recently are struggling for resources to be able to operate. It is the job of the finance team to ensure that this is rectified immediately.


Expired vaccines

AS if the vicious resurgence of cases and renewed attacks on vaccination teams were not enough, the anti-polio campaign in the past few months has also had to contend with serious doubts arising over the competence of the past and present leadership of the polio programme. In the latest scandal, between 50 and 60 children were administered expired oral vaccine in Dhoke Budhal village in Rawalpindi district. Thankfully, no adverse effect of the expired vaccine has been reported so far; however, the ongoing immunisation drive appears to have suffered as parents in nearby areas have begun to refuse vaccination for their children. Though the responsibility of this incident was quickly fixed with the suspension of two district health officials, while two committees are also looking into the matter, the effect of this critical lapse in management will be far-reaching and damaging to the larger campaign against polio. This incident is especially shocking given that at least seven P2 polio virus cases that emerged last month were also attributed to years-old vaccine that had not been destroyed.
In the current case, national polio officials cite WHO as saying that the expired OPV was harmless; they have also said that SOPs have been devised for issuing new vaccines. But why had they not done so earlier? Moreover, why in a campaign that has global donors and local and international oversight, was the polio vaccine not being collected and destroyed before it was due to expire, according to recognised procedures? Under the present health dispensation, it appears that all the progress made towards the eradication of the crippling disease has been drastically reversed. A total of eight polio cases had been reported in 2017 and 12 in 2018, but the number has shockingly risen to over 100 this year. This steep surge, combined with reports of criminal negligence in the immunisation programme, is a clarion call for some solid structural changes in the management of the polio programme. The children of this country should not have to pay the price of official incompetence.


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