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A vigil, a protest

December 03, 2007

LAHORE, Dec 2: Despite their comical appearances, the work of Code Pink activists who held a 24 hour vigil outside the home of jailed PPP activist Aitzaz Ahsan is anything but frivolous.

For Medea Benjamin and Tighe Barry, peace activists who came to meet with “a great hero in the struggle for democracy in Pakistan”, landing in Pakistan has been an eye-opener.

Dressed entirely in pink to symbolise their opposition to the masochistic colour-coded homeland security alerts in the US, which they believe to be a scare-tactic to justify violence, they arrived at the residence of Mr Ahsan at noon on Sunday, and intend to continue their vigil till Monday (today) noon.

Explains Benjamin, a former economist and United Nations representative: “Back in the States they portray that things are moving in the right direction — that Benazir is the great saviour of Pakistan, that Musharraf is shedding his dictatorial and that things are moving in a positive direction.

“You get here and realise it’s all much more complicated, that she comes with a lot of baggage, and that people think coming back and making a deal with the dictator is not the way to go forward.”

It was for this reason that the two decided to visit Mr Ahsan, a key figure in the restoration of the chief justice back in May.

Says Barry, a Los Angeles based prop-maker: “We talked to Bushra (Ahsan’s wife), and we asked if we could see him. So we walked into the jailer and he said you can’t do it.

So my question was, why are you holding him, especially when our media is telling us there are no political prisoners? They tell us every day we should be able to walk through that gate if she says it’s ok.”

Both activists are frustrated and guilty about the lines their government has taken with Pakistan, which they believe to be unhelpful and part of the problem.

“Our government is upholding this undemocratic regime in Pakistan, and we’re tired of all our money being spent on bombs and ammunition and arming,” says Barry.

Though they insist there is a wider level of support back home for their work here, Pakistan’s perception as a violent and inhospitable land held back several of their colleagues.

“We were afraid to come,” admits Benjamin. “People back home associate Pakistan with Daniel Pearl, suicide bombers, they think violence.”

“But what we’ve actually found a very vibrant civil society. And the students, despite the fact they’re faced with expulsion, are out on the streets. The lawyers are out on the streets. We find the journalists, who are threatened with censorship are trying to speak loudly and when you feel that kind of energy it’s very inspiring,” she adds.

Mr Barry traveled throughout the NWFP in his youth in the 1970s, and it is this special emotional attachment that brings him back now.

“When I came here this was one of the coolest places on the planet. I worked with a guy from the NWFP, we brought cosmetics in, we did some stuff, we went all around the Swat Valley and Gilgit and it was a fun place,” he says.

As part of their work, they have been meeting with lawyers and activists, and hope to bring some people back to testify at the United States House of Congress on the ground situation. They say they have already spoken to Congressman Gary Ackerman, who heads the House Subcommittee on Pakistan about this possibility.

They will also encourage more lawyers and activists from the US to come to Pakistan and facilitate their Pakistani counterparts.

As part of their travels, Ms Benjamin and Mr Barry both say they have been impressed with the warmth and intensity of the Pakistani people. Mr Barry, in particular, professes a love for Pakistani cuisine.

But make no mistake this duo is on a serious mission.

Detention extended

THE Punjab government on Sunday extended the detention period of Supreme Court Bar Association president and Pakistan People’s Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan for 30 days. Mr Ahsan has been serving jail at his Zaman Park house after the government declared his house as sub-jail. —Staff Reporter