ISLAMABAD / NEW YORK, Feb 15: A US-based human rights group on Friday released, what it claimed, was an audiotape of Pakistan’s attorney general acknowledging that the general election would be "massively" rigged.

The Human Rights Watch said a journalist had made the recording during a telephone interview with Malik Mohammad Qayyum when the latter took a second call without disconnecting the first, allowing his end of the second conversation to be overheard and recorded.

The country's top legal officer can be heard in the tape advising the caller to accept an election ticket being offered by an unidentified political party, the Human Rights Watch said.

"They will massively rig (elections) to get their own people to win," Mr Qayyum said, according to the transcript released by Human Rights Watch. "If you get a ticket from these guys, take it."

In reply to queries by journalists after the release of the tape, Attorney General Malik Mohammad Qayyum questioned its authenticity. “Had it not been fake, it would have been released three months ago,” he stressed.

In New York, the Director of Human Rights Watch refused to respond to the threat of a legal action by Malik Qayyum.

“The recording in the tape speaks for itself. The tape is what it is,” Brad Adams told a news agency.

Malik Qayyum said he was a professional and had nothing to do with politics. “It is not my job to field candidates or tender advice to potential candidates.”

He termed malicious, defamatory and manufactured a news item placed by Human Rights Watch on its website carrying the purported conversation. “The conversation is fabricated. The very explanation about how it was recorded is ludicrous and beyond belief.”

He said neither did he have anything to do with the holding of elections nor was he privy to any election-related information.

”The timing of release (three days before the elections) of this manufactured tape also clearly indicates that it is meant to embarrass the government.”

Malik Qayyum said his brother was a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and had no intention to join the PML’s ruling faction.

“My sister is a parliamentarian for the PPP and her son, too, is contesting election on the party’s ticket.”

An English translation of the recording, which is in Urdu and Punjabi, follows: “Leave Nawaz Sharif (PAUSE).... I think

Nawaz Sharif will not take part in the election (PAUSE).... If he does take part, he will be in trouble.

“If Benazir takes part she too will be in trouble (PAUSE).... They will massively rig to get their own people to win.

“If you can get a ticket from these guys, take it (PAUSE).... If Nawaz Sharif does not return himself, there is no use of getting a ticket from him.”

The potentially incendiary recording was made the day the government announced, in November, that it would hold elections on Jan 8, according to Human Rights Watch. The watchdog said the Punjabi-language conversation can be heard on its website, www.hrw.org.

Human Rights Watch said that since the official commencement of the election season in November, numerous allegations had come up of pre-poll irregularities, including arrests and harassment of opposition candidates and workers.

The administration is being accused of using state machinery in aid of candidates backed by President Pervez Musharraf, the statement added. The watchdog also said the Election Commission was not impartial.

A PEEP INTO THE PAST: The HRW has placed on its website the “background” of the Attorney General.

It says Malik Qayyum is a former judge who resigned from the bench in 2001 amid charges of misconduct. On April 15, 1999, a two-judge panel of the Lahore High Court, headed by Mr Qayyum, convicted Benazir Bhutto and husband Asif Ali Zardari in a corruption case. They were sentenced to five years

in prison, fined 8.6 million dollars each, disqualified as members of parliament for five years, and forced to forfeit their property.

In Feb 2001, Britain’s Sunday Times published a report based on transcripts of 32 audiotapes, revealing that Mr Qayyum convicted Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari for “political reasons”.

The transcripts reproduced by the newspaper showed that Qayyum asked then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s anti-corruption chief, Saifur Rehman, for advice on the sentence: “Now you tell me how much punishment do you want me to give her?”

In April 2001, on the basis of this evidence, a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court upheld an appeal by the couple, overturning the conviction.

The bench contended that Malik Qayyum had been politically motivated in handing down the sentence. Faced with a trial for professional misconduct by the Supreme Judicial Council, Qayyum opted to resign his post in June 2001.

A close associate of President Musharraf, Mr Qayyum was appointed the lead counsel by the federal government in March of last year to pursue the presidential reference against Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

He was appointed attorney general in August.

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