LAHORE: A majority of the audience at the concluding session of Asma Jahangir Conference on Sunday erupted in rousing applause when it was announced that PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif would be shortly addressing the gathering live online from London.
However, enthusiasm of the lawyers chanting “Ye jo kaala coat hai, Mian tera vote hai (this black coat is your vote)” was dashed when just a few seconds into his speech, Nawaz disappeared from the screen. Mobile internet connection at the conference venue had already been suspended a short while ago, while it later transpired the broadband internet cables had been cut that eventually interrupted the broadcast.
Not giving in easily, the event organsiers managed to get Nawaz back online for a telephonic address. The PML-N supremo began by paying tribute to the late Asma Jahangir’s struggles for democracy, constitution and people’s rights. He added that he had close ties to Asma and was the last person Asma spoke to before her death.
Minister boycotts session in protest against the speech of an ‘absconder’
“If those raising questions are silenced, it won’t help solve problems,” Nawaz said, referring to the disruption in the internet service. “Unfortunately, the current era has proven to be the darkest in history for freedom of speech and human rights.”
He lamented how those speaking the truth — political opponents, journalists, columnists — are either disappeared, imprisoned, killed or sacked from jobs, TV shows and advertisements are stopped.
Referring to the former Gilgit-Baltistan judge’s allegations against former chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar, the three-time premier remarked how even judges were seeking justice now and allegedly pressured to issue verdicts against political opponents.
He lashed out at military dictators for disrespecting the constitution, laws and judiciary, carrying out political engineering and toppling governments. “We need to unite on a common national narrative of loyalty towards the constitution and following the limits prescribed in it. For this, lawyers, intellectuals, democratic forces, media, civil society, students, human rights organizations must play their roles.”
He said it was the right of the people of Pakistan to get rid of joblessness, inflation, poor economy and be provided with health, justice and education. “I have been stressing that we need to put our house in order, but the ‘Dawn leaks’ saga was staged and we were punished under false cases that led to humiliation.”
It was time to create a national agenda and give it the shape of a national movement. “I suggest that [based on] all the recommendations made at the conference, an immediate strategy be formed and everyone sit together so that the path of practical struggle is adopted. This should be done today and acted upon immediately to pull the country out of the quagmire,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, the conference organisers condemned the alleged state highhandedness of “muzzling” Nawaz Sharif’s speech. In a statement, the Supreme Court Bar Association, Pakistan Bar Council and the AGHS said the internet provider was restrained from providing the organisers with services for the conference. This included cutting off of mobile internet services in the vicinity of the venue two hours before the closing session when Mr Sharif’s speech was supposed to start. The organisers called it an onslaught on the freedom of expression.
Munizae Jahangir, journalist and organiser of the conference, said, “We believe in freedom of expression that is why this non-partisan platform is open to everyone and we condemn the muzzling of the closing session where Mian Nawaz Sharif was going to make an address.”
Reacting to the “gagging” of Nawaz’s address, PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb told Dawn: “The gag order executed by the feeble Imran Khan is a reinforcement and testimony of the failure of his incompetent and corrupt government and evident of his tyranny.” She questioned why Nawaz poses such a threat that each time his words are muted.
However, when asked about the state’s involvement in disrupting Nawaz’s address at the conference, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said: “Not that I know of.”
Earlier, Mr Chaudhry boycotted a session he was supposed to address as a keynote speaker at the conference a little ahead of schedule after he found out about Nawaz’s speech later in the day.
Hours before the session on Afghan crisis, the minister tweeted: “I have made an excuse not to attend the conference after knowing that the conference will conclude with the speech of an absconder. This is tantamount to making fun of the country and its constitution.”
Adviser to the Prime Minister on Accountability and Interior Mirza Shahzad Akbar also questioned the impartiality of the conference organisers to allow an absconder and convict to speak at an event. In a tweet, Mr Akbar wrote, “Having an absconder and convict to speak at a conference where CJP and senior judges of superior judiciary and members of Bar have spoken creates serious doubts on impartiality of organisers. The Hon’ble judges should remain clear of such politicised gatherings.”
Speaking at the session, MNA Mohsin Dawar said a humanitarian crisis was brewing on the Pak-Afghan borders as even those having Pakistani visas were not being allowed to enter from any border, and security passes being sought.
He said people had now been informed that the federal cabinet had decided that no security pass was required, but the situation at the borders had not eased. Stating that the Afghan problem was an international problem, Mr Dawar said it would not be sorted out properly, but go out of control.
Referring to a narrative in Pakistan that Taliban had popular support in Afghanistan, Mr Dawar said this could be determined by how many Afghans wanted to get out of the country. He also highlighted the discrimination, including gender based, in the Citizenship Act. “If a Pakistani man marries an Afghan woman, she is given citizenship. If a Pakistani woman marries an Afghan man, the family is not given nationality,” he remarked and added that he had twice submitted bills on the issue but they were rejected without justification.
Academic and founder of the Women and Youth Leadership Forum Orzala Nemat speaking online from Afghanistan said the situation in the country was extremely grim as over 30 million people were facing a serious economic crisis.
Ms Nemat said not only the poor, but government officials, NGO workers and other workers in different sectors were suffering. Schools, colleges and universities were closed and the staff was not able to get their salaries.
Asking what was the fault of 38 million people in Afghanistan being battered because of the mistakes of the region and international community, Ms Nemat said if the economic crisis was not resolved as soon as possible, the world would see more and more Afghan people trying to move out of the country.
Ms Nemat, who herself was a refugee in Pakistan for two years, stressed the current migration influx in the region, particularly towards Pakistan, required immediate and urgent action by the neighbouring countries and international community.
Ambassador of the European Union to Pakistan Androulla Kaminara, UNHCR Deputy Representative Tammy Sharpe and Consultant Regional Peace and Security Issues, UNDP, Simbal Khan also spoke on the occasion.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2021