Pakistani-American Groups Urge Obama to Support Reform in Pakistan

11 March 2009

Pakistani-American organizations are urging the Obama administration to express support for Thursday's planned opposition demonstration in Pakistan, calling for an independent judiciary and other reforms. Spokesmen for the groups were on Capitol Hill Wednesday to voice support for the national protest.

Representatives of a coalition of Pakistani-American organizations appeared in front of a large banner, urging President Barack Obama to support the restoration of an independent judiciary in Pakistan.

Agha Saeed
Agha Saeed
Agha Saeed, a California State University political scientist and founder of the Pakistan American National Alliance, an organization of six Pakistani-American groups, called the planned demonstration a defining moment for Pakistan.

He says the Obama administration must put the United States on "the right side of history" by supporting those involved in the protest. "At this time, if America is on the wrong side of history, that will be disastrous. So we are very concerned; we want to make sure our [i.e., the U.S.] government understands the stakes and is not seen opposing the independent judiciary," he said.

Muhammad Salim Akhtar (left) and Muhammad Ashraf Toor
Muhammad Salim Akhtar (left) and Muhammad Ashraf Toor
"The lawyers, the opposition, the civil society is going to be in the streets, although they [i.e., authorities in Pakistan] have started mass arrests. But we wanted to have a token "Long March" and a statement in favor of what restoration of democracy means in Pakistan," said Muhammad Ashraf Toor, the Chairman of the Pakistan American National Alliance.

Toor and others described Pakistan's civilian government as a continuation of former President Pervez Musharraf's administration. In 2007, the General suspended Pakistan's Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The refusal of Pakistan's President Asif Zardari to reinstate Chaudhry is a key issue driving the protest, in advance of which the government has arrested hundreds of lawyers, opposition politicians and activists.

Activist Raja Muhammad Yaqub, Chairman of the Coalition of Pakistani Organizations of Chicago, says Chaudhry must be reinstated. "We struggle for independence of the judiciary in Pakistan and real democracy in Pakistan, and economic development and a modern state that can give human rights and civil rights and economic stability to Pakistan," he said.

Muhammad Salim Akhtar of the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections says Obama administration support for the opposition would send a signal that the United States favors full democracy in Pakistan. "We hope and pray that [the] Obama government understands the situation and they will demand before we [i.e., the U.S.] can deal with this government [i.e., the Pakistan government] who came through the democratic process but their norms are not democratic," he said.

Appearing with the Pakistani-American representatives was U.S. Representative Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, who said United States support for an independent Pakistani judiciary would help combat extremism in the country. "History has shown us that one of the most effective ways to defeat terror is by enhancing our basic freedoms. By standing for freedom [in Pakistan], we are taking a stand against extremism. A stronger and more independent Pakistani judiciary means a weaker Taliban," he said.

The U.S. position on developments in Pakistan was a major topic at Wednesday's State Department briefing, where reporters pressed spokesman Robert Wood about Washington's view of Thursday's planned demonstration and the government crackdown.

Wood said the U.S. continues to support freedom of speech, assembly and expression, saying Washington hopes the various parties in Pakistan resolve their differences and refrain from violence.

Asked whether the United States has tried to exert pressure on Pakistan's government to reinstate former chief justice Chaudhry, Wood said. "There is a difficult situation on the ground in Pakistan. What we don't want to see is further violence. We want to see the rule of law respected. We want to see freedom of expression and assembly carried out. And that's where we are," he said.

On whether the Obama administration wants to see former justice Chaudhry reinstated, Wood would only say that the issue is something that needs to be worked out among Pakistanis in accordance with the country's laws.