Oppression under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq

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The Oppression under the Military Governmental regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, is a period in the Cold war context and the history of Pakistan in which the mass political and military repression occurred during the military regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who gave the authorization of such political crimes to curbed the communist, secular, socialist, liberal and democratic socialist forces, from 1977 to 1988. It involved the large-scale purge of all political groups with left of center orientation on the left-right political spectrum, repression of peasants, senior military leaders, characterised by widespread police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment, and arbitrary executions of the Pro-Russian parties opposing the country's covert involvement to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Soviet Afghanistan. No offiial inquiry has ever been held to determine the death toll which is estimated to be as high as twenty thousand people.[1]

On July 5, 1977 Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan Army General Zia-ul-Haq the orchestrated a plan to overthrow the civilian and democratically elected government of Prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a bloodless coup, codename —Operation Fair Play. After the imposition of martial law in Pakistan, the military dictatorial regime moved swiftly to thwart any opposition or prospective opposition against Zia's regime, while the initial public response against the imposition of martial law was limited to lounges, the persecution and opposition increased in the run up to the conviction and execution of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Thereafter the opposition and simultaneously the persecution became more organized with the advent of Movement for Restoration of Democracy under the leadership of Benazir Bhutto.

The victims of persecution ranged from political activists to religious and ethnic minorities to communists, intellectuals, journalists, poets and many others. Estimates of people murdered directly on the orders of regime or through staged trials in civil and military Courts vary between five thousand to twenty thousand. In addition thousands were murdered in state sponsored ethnic and sectarian violence in incidents like Qasba Aligarh Massacre where 400 people were raped and murdered under two hours in Karachi.[2] The tyranny and oppression can be divided into three phases.

Political victimization from 1977 to 1982[edit]

On July 5, 1977 the forces of Pakistan army swiftly moved to arrest the Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, placing all the members of cabinet and leaders of Pakistan Peoples Party under house arrest. With entire party cadres under arrest, the regime faced little opposition until the death penalty for Bhutto was announced on 18 March 1978. His conviction was met with non-violent mass protests throughout Sindh and parts of Punjab. The protest in Nawabshah was crushed in first instance of mass murder by the regime where hundreds of protesting peasants were killed by use of combat helicopters on the orders of the provisional governor of Sindh Lieutenant-General S.M. Abbasi. This was followed by imposition of curfew in Nawabshah, Larkana, Sukkur, Hyderabad and parts of Karachi. The regime made thousands of arrests throughout Sindh and Punjab effectively banning display of the flag of Pakistan Peoples Party or its symbol. Cities throughout Sindh remained in continual state of curfew until April 4, 1979 when Bhutto was executed in secret, without a pre-announced date.[3]

The execution was followed by pre-emptive curfew throughout Sindh and reactionary curfews in Multan, Bhawalpur and other parts of Punjab. More than 50 people protested in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, by self-immolation while thousands of participants and onlookers were arrested and jailed on grounds ranging from disruption of public order to sedition and high treason.

Political victimization of politicians and workers during Movement for Restoration of Democracy[edit]

In February, 1981 the left-wing political parties led by PPP formed the Movement for Restoration of Democracy. The regime retaliated by with brutal violence on protestors in Larkana, Khairpur, Jacobabad and Nawabshah resulting in numerous death. Official death toll was announced at 189 casualties whereas the movement claimed a death toll in thousands. In Nawabshah helicopters of Pakistan military used combat helicopters to shoot masses of protesting peasants.[4] In Sukkur protestors were bulldozed on the instruction of army officer in charge when they refused orders to move and stop protesting. On September 27, 1982, President General Zia-ul-Haq issued the executive decree, the Martial Law Regulation No. 53, allowing the death sentence as the prescribed punishment for "any offense liable to cause insecurity, fear or despondency amongst the public.". Crimes punishable under this measure, which superseded civil law, included "any act with intent to impair the efficiency or impede the working" of, or cause damage to, public property or the smooth functioning of government. Another was abetting "in any manner whatsoever" the commission of such an offense, or failure to inform the police or army of the "whereabouts or any other information about such a person." Thus one was liable not merely for what one said or did but also for what one did not do. As if this were not enough jeopardy for citizens, Martial Law Order 53 reversed the most fundamental principle of justice - in Pakistan you were guilty until proved innocent. The law provided that "a military court on the basis of police or any other investigation alone may, unless the contrary is proved, presume that this accused has committed the offense charged." Amongst other provisions the decree it was stated "shall be deemed to have taken effect on July 5, 1977"—the day General Zia overthrew his predecessor Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

6 year old Fraz Wahlah in the mid 80s PPP flag leading a protest against marshal law in Pakistan shortly before his arrest which made him the youngest political prisoner of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy

During the 11 year regime of General Zia, international human rights groups repeatedly expressed concern over army's ruthless measures to suppress dissent. The Amnesty International, in a report released on 15 May 1978 expressed that, "We are very concerned at the use of flogging in Pakistan and are disturbed that this unusual punishment is also being inflicted on political prisoners for committing acts which often appear to be no more than exercise of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in the constitution. The first public hanging took place in March, after death sentences were passed by a military court on three civilians convicted for murder. At least 16 prisoners have so far been sentenced to floggings for political activities."[5]

"Relatives, many of them teenagers, have in some cases been held temporarily as hostages until a wanted person was found. Bhutto's Attorney General, Yahya Bakhtiar was beaten up in his cell in Quetta jail this month: his family was given his bloodstained clothes for cleaning." Commenting on General Zia regime's repression the Economist said the army has been ruthless in its crackdown.

Further more a survey by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists citing a report by the Lahore Bar Association,charged that "systematic torture" occurred in five Lahore prisons in 1984, particularly at a jail where many political detainees were held. Military courts are used increasingly to clear the backlog of cases in ordinary courts. The survey cited reports that the military courts decide cases in minutes and refuse defendants the rights to lawyers. Special military courts that try serious offenses allow defense counsel but the judges often obstruct the lawyers in their work," the survey said.

On 19 November 1985 the Amnesty International also accused the Zia regime of torturing and denying fair trials to political prisoners tried by special military courts. "As of September, more than 130 prisoners were serving sentences of between seven and 42 years after special military courts convicted them of political offenses or politically motivated criminal offenses. The military courts regularly use as evidence confessions extracted by torture while prisoners are hung upside down and beaten, given electric shocks, strapped to blocks of ice, deprived of food and sleep for two or three days and burned with cigarettes. Many prisoners are held in fetters and chains. People often are tried in courts held in closed session and denied the right of appeal to a higher court." The number of prisoners held without trial and shot on site was estimated to be ten-fold.

International Commission of Jurists again published a report on 7 September.1987 stating that "some human rights abuses continue in Pakistan, including alleged military attacks on villagers, despite the lifting of martial law 20 months ago." The ICJ report cited reports by villagers who said their villages were raided and looted by soldiers sometimes accompanied by local police. "Some male villagers were shot to death and women beaten, in at least two cases pregnant women, who subsequently miscarried." "Certainly, no defender of democracy or human rights is going to shed tears over General Zia's death," wrote the reputed Paris daily Le Monde on August 18, 1988.

An estimated 20,000 political workers were hunted down and executed during the regime whereas thousands more fled around western Europe, the Middle East and United States to seek asylum.

Persecution of journalists[edit]

The victimization of journalist started with the imposition of ban on the publication of the Daily Musawaat (Urdu: مساوات ) which means equity. In response to the ban the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists came out openly against the regime. After the failure of efforts to convince the Martial Law authorities to lift the ban, the PFUJ launched a campaign of hunger strike in Karachi from December 1, 1977 and within eight days of the struggle in which journalists and press workers from all over the country participated, the government surrendered and lifted the ban. However, the government quickly resorted to its instincts and again took coercive actions against the dissenting press banning the daily "Musawaat", Lahore, and weeklies, like "Al-Fatah" and "Meyar" and others, which were critical of the Martial Law regime. The persecution of journalists by the Zia regime can be divided into two phases.

In the first phase of the crackdown by the regime in Lahore, the journalists and press workers who joined the hunger strike were arrested and sentenced under Martial Law Regulations for six months to one year rigorous imprisonment. These included three, who were ordered to be flogged, namely Khawar Naeem, Iqbal Jaferi Hashimi and Nasir Zaidi. The fourth, Masoodullah Khan was spared on the intervention of the doctor in view of Mr Masood's disability. It was during this stage that after having failed to suppress the movement for press freedom. the military regime picked up the four renegades from the PFUJ to create a parallel PFUJ, a pocket organization known as " Rashid Siddiqui Group", who was given full publicity on official media supported the government and it condemned PFUJ's struggle for press freedom exposing their true colours.