Unrest in Pakistan, concern in Md.

Pakistani-Americans watch and worry

November 18, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

In Pakistan, the arrests of two acclaimed professors at Lahore University of Management Sciences sparked large student protests.

In Baltimore, Riwan Chaudhry became inspired. Lahore is his hometown, the university his alma mater, and the professors his heroes.

The doctoral student in computer science at the Johns Hopkins University joined a demonstration outside the Pakistani Embassy calling for an end to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's state of emergency, a move that suspended the nation's constitution, imposing de facto martial law.

"I've always known this culture of independence in Pakistan, then suddenly, one day it all goes away," said Chaudhry. "With these arrests, that was the flash point. We had to do something."

In the two weeks since Musharraf issued the emergency decree - which has included silencing the press and dissolving the Supreme Court - Pakistan's political turmoil has monopolized conversation among local Pakistani-Americans.

While some have taken part in protests, others have called their representatives in Congress, urging the United States government to pressure Musharraf to end the state of emergency. And many more panicked expatriates are making frequent calls to anxious relatives while scouring satellite TV for updates.

Musharraf, who is also chief of Pakistan's army, has said he issued the emergency decree because of a rising threat of Islamic militants and interference by the judiciary. But opponents called the move unconstitutional, noting it came just as the Supreme Court was expected to rule on the legality of his re-election last month.

Authorities placed opposition leader and former Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto under house arrest and detained her supporters, who were planning a rally denouncing the president. Nevertheless, anti-Musharraf demonstrations have persisted and Bhutto has called for the president to step down.

"A lot of people feel that progress has been made in Pakistan in the last five to six years," said Irfan Malik, an engineer from Ellicott City who left Pakistan for the United States 22 years ago. "And now you have this. We're going 180 degrees the other way, and people are really asking why. No one has been able to answer that."

Malik said his mother and three sisters who remain in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad are worried the political instability will cause a surge in Islamic militancy. One of his sisters, who works as a human resource officer in a government agency, recently called Malik, alarmed after encountering road barricades and opposition rallies on her drive to work.

"There have been incidents where some people are targeting army officers and their families," he said. "Many of my family members and friends have cut down their outside activities. They are afraid to be in an open place, in case some violence were to break out."

Fear has so gripped Dr. Anees Ahsan's family in Lahore that when he calls to ask about the political turmoil, they change the subject, he said.

"They are too afraid to talk on the phone; they think the lines might be tapped," said Ahsan, a cardiologist from Clarksville, who has friends in the Pakistani government. "This is the kind of oppression and suppression going on."

Ahsan, who visits his mother and two brothers in Pakistan every year, calls his hometown of Lahore - where Bhutto has been detained and students and lawyers have demonstrated - "the eye of the storm." The latest strife has been difficult for him to stomach, since he was once an ardent supporter of Musharraf.

"I thought he was the right person to make Pakistan become a terrorist-free zone," said Ahsan, who has lived in the U.S. since 1983. "But I feel that he is more concerned about staying president than he is worried about the country."

Ahsan said he and many other U.S. citizens born in Pakistan feel they have a foot in each nation. But they say they are resolved to view the conflict as Americans, with the hope that the Bush administration gets tougher on Musharraf's regime.

"The international community must convey to him that they will not deal with a dictator," Ahsan said. "When you have judges arrested, the constitution suspended, but you say, `I'm going to have fair and free elections,' that's so ridiculous. And for a person like me, very painful."

Malik, who is active in the National Association of Pakistani-Americans and a local organization of Pakistani entrepreneurs, said he thinks Pakistani immigrants can play an important role in affecting U.S. policy.

While he acknowledges that Congress has little bearing on the administration's policies toward Pakistan, Malik said he has made phone calls to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' office to urge an end to Musharraf's policies. "They really need to tell Musharraf - and in real terms, not just politely - that he needs to roll back the emergency and reinstate the judiciary," he said.

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