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Daily Times Editorials – 11th February 2016

Personal vendettas

That political office has often been used as an instrument of loot and plunder is a fact well known, but it has also served vested interests and been a means to settle personal scores. The latest example of this kind of abuse can be seen in the shenanigans of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Privatisation, which is presided over by Saleem Mandviwala, a former minister of state for investment. He also very briefly held the title of federal minister for finance in 2013. Mr Mandviwala has some very specific grievances directed against Mr Mian Mansha, one of Pakistan’s most notable businessmen, recognised as one of the country’s leading lights when it comes to business acumen and industry. The Senate committee, unfortunately, instead of deliberating on the welfare of the masses and using its advantageous platform for societal benefit, is now being used by Mr Mandviwala to settle old scores. This is because Mr Mandviwala was the owner of a cinema house in Karachi that was burnt down by a violent mob in 2012 during a rally against blasphemous cartoons; Mandviwala’s cinema house was collateral damage that day. It was insured by Adamjee Insurance, a Mansha family-owned concern. The insurance company refused to entertain Mr Mandviwala’s claim of Rs 89 million because his insurance policy did not cover instances of terrorism, which is how the arson was seen. That seems to have been enough for Mr Mansha to have gained the ex-minister’s ire, a grudge that keeps rearing its ugly head in the Senate committee, an inappropriate venue for revenge.

Joining in this chorus against Mr Mansha is Senator Saeed Ghani. He used to be an employee of Muslim Commercial Bank (MCB) but was dishonourably discharged after partaking in violent trade union activities and beating up an employee from the human resource department. Hence, Mr Ghani also has an axe to grind. Both these men have been reported as using the Senate committee to defame and abuse Mr Mansha and his concerns. Personal grudges should remain just that: personal. The fact that a platform as high and prominent as the Senate is being used to bring out this kind of ugly hostility is a conflict of interest. Senators are supposed to uphold the dignity of their office, the integrity of the Constitution and follow certain ethical and moral standards. What Mr Mandviwala and Mr Ghani are doing on state time and money is unacceptable. If they persist in their campaign, perhaps the Senate should consider recalling them from the committee they are besmirching.

Executions halted

The Supreme Court (SC) has halted the execution of four death row inmates sentenced by military courts for their involvement in different terrorist activities. Two of these men, Taj Muhammad and Ali Rehman, had been convicted for facilitating the gruesome attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar that left more than 150 people, mostly schoolchildren, dead. Another, Qari Zubair, was found guilty of being involved in a bomb attack on a mosque in Nowshera, and the fourth was convicted for firing on a check post in Bajaur Agency that left eight dead. The families of the convicts challenged the military courts’ verdicts through Advocate Latif Afridi, who claimed before the two-member bench of the SC that during the proceedings of these cases, Article 10-A of the Constitution, which ensures fair trial, had been ignored. Sentences had been awarded without any prior notice, leaving the accused no time to prepare a defence. The convicts’ counsels stated that they had earlier challenged the decision in the Peshawar High Court (PHC) but the appeals were rejected on the ground that the cases did not fall within the PHC’s jurisdiction. In response to the counsel’s plea to stay execution till the final disposal of the case, the SC granted a stay of execution and adjourned the case till February 16, while issuing notice to the Attorney General.

The SC has wisely used its power of judicial review. After the APS incident the decision to set up military courts was justified as necessary to expedite counter-terrorism cases. This came with widespread apprehensions that a summary military court procedure would lead to miscarriage of justice. This is no longer a mere suspicion now, since military courts are being demonstrated as failing to answer to standards of fair trial and due process, considering that during such proceedings, no basis of conviction is provided, no evidence to support it is given, there is no adequate legal representation provided to the alleged criminal, and the process is entirely non-transparent, meaning that the detailed judgement that may shed light on the otherwise lacking information is also unavailable. The judgements in question were passed in similar circumstances and endorsed by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS). When the 21st Constitutional Amendment, under which the military courts were set up, was challenged, the SC did not strike down the Amendment to avoid a conflict with parliament, but it did enunciate that the judiciary would retain the right of judicial review of all sentences passed by military courts. This has now proved to be the last resort for those convicted by military courts. The apex court’s review of the sentences of military courts has turned out to be a blessing for those convicted without due process.

Lessons of PIA strike

After eight days of an initial total and later partial strike by the PIA employees protesting against the government’s plans to privatise the airline, a call to return to work was announced by the employees’ Joint Action Committee (JAC) chairman Sohail Baloch in a press conference on February 9. According to Baloch, a “kind friend” had so advised. Speculation centres on the identity of this “friend”, with some reports naming him as perhaps Hamza Sharif, who flew to Islamabad to hold talks with the employees. This surmise is strengthened by the announcement by Sohail Baloch that he and a delegation of JAC would be travelling to Lahore to meet Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, one of two PML-N leaders the JAC chief had named the other day as possible negotiators from the government side. Although Baloch mentioned that they had received assurances regarding the PIA privatisation issue, he did not divulge any details, fending off the question by saying this would be revealed only after they had met Shahbaz Sharif. He also went on to say PIA could be turned around by its workers within a year if given a chance. And he had the grace to apologise to PIA passengers for the inconvenience caused. Whatever the back channel that engaged with JAC and held out whatever assurances, reports say the government maintained its tough stance on the strike by insisting it must end before any negotiations. Of course if the talks fail, JAC says it reserves the right to resume its protest. Around 600 domestic and international flights of the national carrier were said to have been cancelled during the strike, incurring a loss of Rs three billion to the financially strapped airline. However, it must not be forgotten who is to blame for these losses and the loss of three employees’ lives during the protest in Karachi. Had the government not been so hasty in its handling of the issue, the loss of those precious lives and the cancelled flights would not have transpired. A PIA spokesman on the night of February 9 announced that full flight operations had been resumed but pointed out that the accumulated backlog could cause some readjustment of flight timings.

The government, having precipitated the crisis by its hardline stance, resorted to various strike breaking tactics. In this purpose they were helped by fissures within the alliance of unions that is JAC. Those employees willing to ‘play ball’ were privileged over those holding out. The former included one union faction and the pilots’ association. At the same time, intimidation of employees, especially airhostesses, was resorted to, as well as continuing (despite the end of the strike) arrests and notices to employees. This is nothing less than rubbing the noses of the striking employees in the dirt and cannot be considered a wise course, given that the impending negotiations need a calmer climate. While the responsibility for the deaths of the three employees remains undetermined, it is perhaps time for the government to now desist from further actions against the strikers. The whole episode has echoed in parliament, with the Senate opposition girding up to give the government a tough time for its mishandling of the crisis. The upper house’s Standing Committee on Finance is looking into the exploitation of the strike by two private airlines accused of jacking up fares many times while PIA was grounded.

The initial protest by the JAC was perfectly legitimate, peaceful and within the ambit of the law and constitution in a democracy. What transformed such a protest into a strike was the killing of three protestors and the ‘kidnapping’ of four leaders (they have since returned safe and sound). Protest can transform into the ultimate weapon of a strike (withdrawal of labour) if the authorities refuse to engage with the protest in a civilised manner. However, for a strike to succeed, it needs more than just the unions of a national organisation like PIA to come out. What was lacking was effective solidarity by other unions, particularly state owned enterprises threatened themselves with the same privatisation prescription. That lack and the mere lip service so far paid by the political opposition meant the PIA workers were left to wage a lonely struggle, dooming it from the start. What the government must not stoop to now is victimisation of the protestors or their leaders. It has muscled its way past the strike. It must now show magnanimity in victory in the interests of getting PIA fully back on its feet and then inform what it intends to do now in terms of its plans for PIA in the future.

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