As if the recent political turmoil and last week’s attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team weren’t enough, media outlets on Monday cited Interior Ministry Chief Rehman Malik, who threatened PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif with charges of “sedition for inciting people to rebellion” after the Supreme Court’s controversial decisions last week, [which nullified Shahbaz's election and declined to rule on a challenge to Nawaz's electoral ban, see related post]. According to GEO News, Malik “said the statement being issued by the Sharif brothers qualify to fall within the definition of mutiny. He said anyone inciting provocation against the government can be awarded three year punishment under Pakistan Penal Code while anyone waging mutiny may be sentenced for life.” [Image, AP]
Media outlets framed the statements in light of Pakistan’s Long March, a cross-country lawyers’ protest slated to begin Thursday and reach Islamabad by next Monday. Reuters quoted Malik, who told reporters, “If in this long march, any death takes place or anyone’s property is damaged … then those who are bearing the flag of sedition or have borne it, then a police compliant [FIR] will be registered.” Dawn, in its coverage, noted, “The government on Monday stuck to its previous stance that it will not allow participants of the lawyers’ Long March from proceeding to the parliament house.” The news agency added, “Analysts believed that the prevailing political turmoil in the country will be further aggravated when the Long March reaches Islamabad on March 16, and it will not be allowed to enter into the federal capital. They foresee clashes between the security forces and the protesters, which may turn violent.”
In today’s news conference, Malik reportedly “cited the relevant sections of Pakistan penal code,” noted the AFP, “saying that expressing hatred or contempt against the federal or provincial government was punishable by life imprisonment.” The news agency reported, “He [Malik] read out phrases from speeches he said Nawaz Sharif has made since the Supreme Court disqualified him and his brother from contesting elections and holding public office. Sharif has made speeches calling on the police not to obey government orders and attacked judges who disqualified him saying he does not recognize the rulings of the Supreme Court — the highest in the country.”
Today’s statements are likely to exacerbate tensions further, which will hold negative ramifications for other arenas in Pakistan, including the economy. According to Reuters, “Pakistani stocks ended 1.5 percent lower on Monday as cautious investors sold shares on worry about political instability, dealers said.” Moreover, noted the news agency, “The main Karachi index has lost 3.5 percent this year after a 58.3 percent fall in 2008.” Given our burgeoning economic crisis, further political instability will be problematic, to say the least.
As for me, I feel like I am watching a comedy of errors, a car accident in slow motion. That sensation is both endlessly tragic and infinitely frustrating. Malik’s statements will only garner a stronger response from the already-fiery opposition, who are riding the wave of the country’s judiciary movement and upcoming Long March. The cycle of tensions and instability will undoubtedly continue until one or both sides are left toppled. Regardless of what the government’s intentions were with today’s announcement, watching the state wielding an iron fist with words like “life imprisonment” and “mutiny” will only incite further indignation and anger among segments of the populace. Moreover, it will likely add further fuel to the comparison of the PPP to the last years of the Musharraf regime.
Did the Sharifs cross the line with their fiery statements? Probably. Would that qualify as sedition or mutiny? The government will certainly argue so for its own preservation, and the law is ambiguous enough to leave that open to interpretation. At the end of the day, though, the real tragedy is that this entire situation has made a travesty of Pakistan’s attempt at democracy.
As William Shakespeare wrote in The Comedy of Errors: For slander lives upon succession/For ever hous’d where it gets possession.