Deported At Gunpoint by Pakistani Government
On our tenth day in Pakistan, my colleague Tighe Barry and I, both human rights activists with CODEPINK and Global Exchange, were arrested at gunpoint by agents of the Pakistani government. We had just left a student rally and were driving down the streets of Lahore with a car full of Pakistani journalists and lawyers. Two cars and six motorbikes came screeching up, blocked our car, piled out with guns drawn, dragged the journalists and lawyers out of the car, beat the bystanders, and hijacked the car. With the two of us huddled in the back surrounded by shouting police, our captors raced at breakneck speed through the crowded streets of Lahore. We had no idea why we were being abducted or where we were headed.
The car pulled up to the Race Course Police Station, where more police threw open the gate and dragged us inside. Terrified, we found ourselves in the office of a shady-looking character in a running suit. He had on no badge or ID, but behind his desk was a framed certificate made out to Faizal Gulzar Awan, awarded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Great-he'd been trained by the FBI. That made us even more terrified!
Our phone had been ringing non-stop, with our friends desperate to find us. The police tried to grab the phone from Tighe, but I snatched it and stuck it down my shirt, assuming the Muslim deference for women would keep them from attacking me physically. I also pressed the answer button, as a call was coming in. Infuriated, Mr. Awan called in a policewoman to get the phone, who pulled and shoved and pinched me, putting her hand down my shirt while I screamed and held on for dear life. All of that, we informed them, was being recorded at the other end by our journalist friends.
At that point, our captor Mr. Ijaz from the Special Police Force, walked in, and the two of them switched to the good cop mode. "Okay, okay," said Mr. Awan. "Let's all calm down." "Yes, yes," Mr. Ijaz smiled. "Let's all drink tea together." They brought out the tea, which we refused to drink, and tried to talk small talk, asking us questions like "What is your favorite Pakistani food?," and "What is the weather like back in the United States?" We refused to answer their questions and instead insisted on talking to a lawyer or someone from the US Consulate.
Finally, after making endless phone calls to their superiors, they allowed us to call the Consulate. We talked to the political officer, Antone Greuble, who was well aware of the situation and said he was on his way.
When we got off the phone, Mr. Awan shocked us with his comment. "We don't know why you were arrested," he said, "we are only carrying out orders from high up. But I think your own government had a hand in it because you embarrassed the Ambassador when she was in town." Just the day before, when Ambassador Anne Patterson was holding a press conference, we had confronted her about the Bush administration's continued support for Musharraf. Now we didn't know who to fear more, Musharraf or our own government.
Four hours later, Mr. Grueble from the Consulate appeared with two security agents. He said that Pakistani government had canceled our visas (which were valid for two more months). The government felt we were engaging in seditious acts under the emergency rules by showing up at rallies and by sitting outside the home of detained lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan. "Why didn't the government just warn us that we were doing something wrong or nicely ask us to come into the police station, instead of terrorizing us?," Tighe asked. "Because this is Pakistan," Greuble replied, condescendingly.
This is indeed Pakistan, but it is the Pakistan of a Pervez Musharraf, a close U.S. ally who has been receiving over $100 million a month of our taxdollars. It is the Pakistan of a dictator posing as a democrat, a general who took off his uniform to please the West, but who remains the strongman who runs the show. It is the Pakistan of Musharraf's emergency rule, issued on November 3 in the name of fighting terrorism but used to wage war on the democratic forces of this country.
In our ten-day visit, we met lawyers who had been brutally beaten and thrown into prisons with rats and murderers. We met judges who had dedicated their lives to the rule of law, only to find themselves unceremoniously thrown off the bench and even physically evicted from their homes. We met students who had been beaten with batons and face expulsion for participating in pro-democracy rallies. We met journalists whose programs had been yanked off the air and tossed from their jobs for criticizing the government. All this under the guise of the war on terror. All this with the continued support of the U.S. government.
Back at our jail in Lahore, Mr. Greuble explained our options. We could languish in jail for an unknown period and then be deported, or we could leave the country on the next available flight. We "chose" the latter. We were released under the care of the U.S. political officer, who booked us on a flight the following day.
Before we left, we had a final goodbye gathering with our newfound friends-the amazing group of lawyers, journalists and students we had met at rallies, vigils, debates. They apologized profusely for the actions of their government; we apologized profusely for our government's actions.
Reflecting on our ordeal on the flight home, Tighe and I marveled at the courage and determination of the Pakistani activists. We left angry at the Pakistani government for the way we were treated, but inspired and motivated by the example of our Pakistani brothers and sisters.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace (www.codepinkalert.org and Global Exchange www.globalexchange.org. To support Pakistan's democracy movement, see http://codepinkalert.org/article.php?list=type&type=335.