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Volume 461: debated on Monday 11 June 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]

I have an interest in Pakistan. I hold the highest civil award that the country can bestow, the Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam, given to me at the end of the 1980s for my work for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan at the end of an earlier bout of military dictatorship supported at the time by the then British Government. I also hold the second highest civil award in Pakistan, the Hilal-i-Pakistan, given to me for my work on behalf of the rights of the people of Kashmir. Until the military overthrow of democracy in Pakistan, I worked closely with all the democratic parties in the country.

It is worth establishing a time line. General Musharraf, as we used to call him when he seized power in a military coup in 1999—before we began to call him President Musharraf, an office to which he appointed himself—came to power having imprisoned and then exiled the democratic political leaders in the country. In 2002 he held a referendum, an extraordinary one even by the standards of eastern potentates, in which he won 97 per cent. of the vote. The referendum was described by Transparency International as blatantly rigged, and the accompanying parliamentary elections in 2002 were described in the same way by all international and disinterested observers. At that time Musharraf made a promise that he would cease to be chief of the army general staff—a promise on which he has reneged.

In September 2006 Amnesty International issued a detailed report on human rights abuses in Pakistan, alleging that the Musharraf Government were responsible for violating

“a wide array of human rights”.

The alleged violations included torture, unlawful detention, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, unlawful transfer of persons to the United States and other countries, and arbitrary arrests.

That date, September 2006, is important. Two months later, in November 2006—just over six months ago—the British Prime Minister visited President Musharraf, and this is what he said. He paid tribute to General Musharraf for

“symbolising the future for Muslim countries the world over.”

I want the House to keep those words in its mind. The Prime Minister praised Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan, for

“symbolising the future for Muslim countries the world over.”

Let us see what has happened in Pakistan since the Prime Minister uttered those words. The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, insisted on hearing cases of “missing persons” and objecting to the privatisation of a steel mill. I think we know who may have taken over; perhaps new Labour's biggest donor, Mr. Mittal, who has given millions of pounds to the Labour party. The chief justice would have none of it and was told by President Musharraf that he must resign. He refused to resign and, on 16 March, just three months after Prime Minister Blair held Musharraf as symbolising the future for Muslim countries, the chief justice was supported by demonstrations throughout the country by lawyers, civil society groups and Opposition parties, which were savagely assailed by General Musharraf’s armed forces. That included the first of many attacks on independent television stations.

On 26 April, the chief justice made a 26-hour journey by car from Islamabad to Lahore and was welcomed by vast crowds along the way. On 12 May, the Government of Sindh, a coalition Government of Musharraf’s king's party and the Muttahida Quami Movement, led from London by a British citizen, Altaf Hussain, to whom I shall return, laid siege to the city. The main thoroughfares were blocked, lawyers and their supporters were attacked outside the Karachi Bar with batons and the MQM militants fired bullets indiscriminately into the peaceful demonstrators. Eleven members of the Pakistan Peoples party were killed, 10 members of the Justice Movement of Imran Khan, with whom I met today and who is meeting the Leader of the Opposition tomorrow—I am not sure whether the Minister will find time in his busy schedule to meet Imran Khan—were wounded, as were scores of others. Last week, just seven months after the Prime Minister said that Musharraf symbolised the future for Muslim countries around the world, all independent television stations were closed down and a draconian ordinance on the press was introduced.

Human Rights Watch, an organisation oft quoted approvingly by Her Majesty's Government, says that

“As president, Musharraf has arbitrarily amended the Pakistani constitution to strengthen the power of the presidency, marginalize elected representatives, and formalize the role of the army in government”

and claimed military impunity for abuses. It goes on:

“These abuses include extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests”.

In The Guardian today, there is a story about how those independent television stations have been taken off the air and journalists fired upon. One television station, Aaj TV, was attacked for six hours in Karachi during the unrest accompanying the chief justice of Pakistan's visit to the city. The report states that a large demonstration was tear-gassed, bullets were fired, batons and rubber bullets were used, television stations were taken off the air and 52 bullets were fired into the television studio of Aaj TV.

The US State Department—I quote it because the United States Government often act in synchronicity with our own—says that the MQM, which is the power in Karachi,

“has been widely accused of human rights abuses since its foundation two decades ago”

and it goes on:

“In the mid-1990s, the MQM-A was heavily involved”—

not alleged to be heavily involved—

“in the widespread political violence that wracked Pakistan’s southern Sindh province”.

Three Members of Congress, led by Joseph Biden, another man close to new Labour, wrote the following letter just a few days ago to Condoleezza Rice:

“Dear Secretary Rice…we have witnessed the spiral of civil unrest and harshly-suppressed protest in Pakistan…We ask that you publicly call for an immediate end to the violence, and urge the government of Pakistan to commit to holding free and fair elections by the year's end.”

Nothing less will be acceptable from the Minister this evening.

Joe Biden and his fellow Senators say that President Musharraf’s dismissal of the chief justice has sparked protests from tens of thousands,

“spearheaded by bar associations, and supported by moderate political parties and civil society organizations”.

They say:

“The violence in Karachi appears to show disturbing signs of collusion between MQM and government forces”

leading to the deaths and wounding of opposition party militants and other protestors—and they go on, and on. They say in the final paragraph:

“The national interests of the United States and of Pakistan are both served by a speedy restoration of full democracy to Pakistan, and by an end to state-sponsored intimidation—often violent—of Pakistani citizens protesting government actions in a legal and peaceful manner. We urge you to make a public appeal to this end, and to raise these matters forcefully in your interactions with Pakistani government officials.”

Again, nothing less will be acceptable from the Minister when he addresses the House this evening.

Following my discussions today with Imran Khan, I want to emphasise that my primary concern, and that of most Pakistanis living in Britain, is this: why is Altaf Hussain being allowed to conduct from a sofa in Edgware a terrorist campaign and a campaign of extortion of businesses and citizens in Sindh, and why was he given British citizenship? I would like the Minister to answer the following question tonight, and if he does not have the answer to hand I would like him to write to me to inform me of it: was Altaf Hussain ever refused British citizenship; and, if he was, what changed between that refusal and the granting of citizenship to him? It is extraordinary that in the middle of a so-called war on terror there is such a bloody reign of terror in a major Pakistani city—and there are millions of Pakistanis who are citizens of our country. A terrorist cell is operating from Edgware in the form of the MQM. Every day, Altaf Hussain, a British citizen, addresses his puppets in Karachi, giving them instructions on how they should govern, including how they should handle peaceful demonstrations.

The Minister smiles smugly. He might think that this is a small matter, but if this man, instead of being a stooge of General—sorry, President—Musharraf and of a Government allied to his own, were a hook-handed, glass-eyed ranting mullah, he would at best already be in Belmarsh and at worst he would be on a plane being deported to the country from where he absconded from murder charges.

This man is the godfather of Sindh—he is the godfather of Karachi—and he is living high on the hog from the extortion of the citizens of Karachi. I really do not know why the Minister finds this funny. It is a serious matter. The question that must be answered is this: how long will the British Government tolerate this situation that is occurring under their noses? Citizenship was given to Hussain under this Government in 1999, and it is my belief that he was refused citizenship under the previous Administration. I want to know why he was given citizenship, and why he is being allowed to operate with impunity.

Far from symbolising the future for the Muslim countries around the world, General Musharraf crystallises the problem which western Governments have in those countries. We tell people that we are invading countries in order to defend democracy and liberty, but we support dictators who crush democracy and liberty as long as they do so in concordance with western policy on other matters.

The slogan, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” is a deeply flawed one, but the Government do not seem to have learned that. They did not read the novel “Frankenstein” to the end. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster, but he lost control of it because we cannot control monsters. Across the border in Afghanistan, we helped to create the monster of jihadism and Islamist fundamentalism that became bin Laden and became the Taliban, on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. However, Madam Deputy Speaker, as we are finding in Iraq and to some extent in Palestine, our enemy’s enemy is not always our friend. Sometimes, our enemy’s enemy is worse than our enemy, and by allying ourselves with the former, making him our friend, we become complicit in the crimes that he commits.

Nobody in the Muslim world can believe that this Government are really interested in democracy and liberty in the Muslim world, so long as they are kissing Colonel Gaddafi in the tent at Sirte—the same Colonel Gaddafi who brought down the Lockerbie airliner, we were told, with the deaths of hundreds of people; the same Colonel Gaddafi whom we said funded the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain through the ’70s and ’80s; the same Colonel Gaddafi whom we said shot down an English policewoman in a London square. Nobody can believe that Colonel Gaddafi deserves the kisses of the British Prime Minister. Nobody believes that Colonel Gaddafi has changed—just that he has changed sides.

Nobody believes that General Musharraf really is the President of Pakistan, and to treat him as if he is is an insult to the hundreds of millions of Pakistanis living under the iron heel of his dictatorship, not to mention the Pakistanis living as citizens in Britain, many of whom have traditionally voted for the Minister’s party. So I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he answers this debate. General Musharraf is a tyrant who is about to fall. I urge this Minister not to do as the now Lord Owen did in backing the tyrant Shah of Persia until the last moments before he fell. It was because of western support for tyrants such as the Shah until the last moments that the radicalisation of such as the Islamic revolution in Iran took place.

My last words are these. Pakistan is a nuclear power. After Musharraf falls, no one knows who will replace him. Whose finger will be on the nuclear trigger in Pakistan once Musharraf falls? The Government would be doing Britain the favour that Biden and others are doing America by intervening now to distance themselves from this tyrant and to help the democratic forces come back to power in Pakistan.

May I begin by extending the normal courtesies of the House to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) on securing tonight’s debate, which he entitled “Restoration of democracy in Pakistan”? I am sure that everyone—including, I hope, the hon. Gentleman—will join me in condemning the recent violence in Karachi and terrorist attacks in Pakistan that have killed and injured so many people. On behalf of the United Kingdom, I extend my sympathies and condolences to those affected.

As this House is aware, Pakistan is an important friend and ally of the United Kingdom. Sixty years after independence, the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and this country is as close as it has ever been. We are closely intertwined historically, culturally and politically. More than 800,000 British citizens living in the UK have Pakistani origins. What is perhaps less well known is that there are at least 80,000 residents in Pakistan with British nationality. About 150,000 people from each country visit the other country every year.

Pakistan is at the heart of a range of the key international issues, including counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, counter-narcotics, migration and cross-cultural and cross-community relationships. These are all shared challenges, which we need to tackle together. The UK is grateful for the continuing co-operation on counter-terrorism that it receives from Pakistan, and the sacrifices that Pakistan has made in the border region with Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban and other criminal elements from crossing the border.

This debate is, however, focused on the question of democracy, and I want to deal with a number of related issues in turn, the first of which is human rights. The Government welcome President Musharraf’s commitment to promoting “enlightened moderation”. The recent reform of the Hudood laws was an important step forward in human rights and democracy in Pakistan. Ministers have consistently raised human rights questions with the Pakistani Government, welcoming their efforts on the women’s protection Bill, for example. Follow-up by the British Government detailed a number of our human rights concerns in Pakistan, and offered UK support on a range of connected issues.

One of those issues was the effect of the blasphemy laws on religious minority groups. We have welcomed Pakistan’s efforts to address that issue, and encourage further reform of discriminatory legislation. I am aware of the continuing problems faced by minority groups in Pakistan, such as the Christian community in the North-West Frontier Province. We continue to monitor closely the developments in these cases.

Both bilaterally and with our European partners, we continue to engage in dialogue with Pakistan on the issues of discriminatory legislation and the situation of minorities. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, and we will continue to voice our concerns to the Government of Pakistan.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the related question of media freedom. I am aware of the new ordinance introduced on 4 June, giving greater powers to the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority. That ordinance was suspended on 6 June, although the hon. Gentleman did not mention that, and subsequently revoked. In response, EU Heads of Mission in Islamabad reaffirmed the great importance that the EU attaches to freedom of expression and of the media as a crucial element for a successful democratic process. They welcome the Government of Pakistan’s decision to suspend the amendment and express their confidence that further steps will be taken to safeguard a political climate in which freedom of expression and of the media is respected, and is conducive to free and fair elections. Freedom of information is essential to economic and social development and stability, and we actively support the evolution of a free and fair press in Pakistan.

On the issue of democratic institutions, in Malta in 2005, Commonwealth Heads of Government welcomed the progress that Pakistan was making in restoring democracy and rebuilding democratic institutions. It is important that Pakistan continue that transition. Strengthening democratic institutions and promoting freedom of expression are vital steps in countering extremism and promoting an environment of tolerance.

The Department for International Development is working in partnership with Pakistan to help to develop its institutions and increase the accountability of the state to its citizens. That programme has four dimensions, which are public sector reform, representative government, access to justice and citizen participation. We also support major interventions underpinning the reform process in government. An important context for DFID’s work is Pakistan’s devolution reform, which was announced in March 2000 by President Musharraf. A distinctive feature is that it aims to deliver “justice at the doorstep”, including moving beyond public safety and the recognition of basic human rights to political and administrative justice. Other interventions include support to tax administration reform, reform of the Federal Bureau of Statistics, and a package of district level reforms in Faisalabad district.

As the House is aware, when the Prime Minister visited Pakistan in November 2006, he announced a doubling of the UK’s development programme for Pakistan. DFID is currently working on its new country assistance plan, which will include further support to Pakistan on good governance, institution building and empowerment.

The UK looks to the Pakistan Government to ensure that the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are held in a free and fair manner in which it is equally possible for all political parties to participate. The British Government welcomed the appointment of an independent election commissioner as an important first step towards those free and fair elections. We are supporting him and his team in their efforts to provide free and fair elections, and to strengthen the role of local election monitors. We call on the Government of Pakistan and the Election Commission to continue their work on voter registration.

In January this year, the Department for International Development announced that it would be giving £3.5 million to support the electoral process in Pakistan. The money will be spent on a number of areas that are fundamental in ensuring a successful electoral process. They include voter registration, training of polling staff and party agents, voter education and ensuring maximum citizen participation in and oversight of the electoral process. The funds will also provide support for a group of international observers to give an objective analysis of the conduct of the elections.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned President Musharraf’s dual role as head of state and chief of army staff. The UK remains committed to the declaration made by Commonwealth Heads of Government in Malta in 2005, to which Pakistan also agreed, that until the two offices of head of state and chief of army staff are separated, the process of democratisation in Pakistan will not be irreversible.

In conclusion, I emphasise the fact that the UK has a long-term commitment to Pakistan’s future. We are closely linked and we share common goals: to defeat terrorism, to tackle extremism, and to share a peaceful and prosperous democratic future. For our part, the Government will continue to work with the Pakistani Government to achieve those goals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.