International Papers

A Constitutional Coup

Dawn, Pakistan’s main English-language daily, ran three editorials Wednesday–about literacy, rural health care, and an initiative by 14 women foreign ministers, including Madeleine Albright, to halt international trafficking in women and children–but none about the country’s military coup. In its main front-page story Dawn said there had been signs of division within the army after Pakistan’s military chief Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf seized power Tuesday but that he quickly imposed tight control. The paper, noting that Musharraf didn’t talk about martial law or of any new constitutional arrangements in his address to the nation, cited reports that the United States has been in direct contact with the Pakistani military urging it to desist from doing anything unconstitutional. It said the four-hour delay before the nation was told the outcome of the coup attempt may have been caused by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to resign as the army looked for a constitutional way to remove him. In a profile of the country’s new leader, Dawn said Musharraf was an army commando for seven years and served in “several self-propelled artillery regiments”–a phrase from his official biography.

The paper’s Washington correspondent noted U.S. reluctance to condemn the army’s seizure of power, or even to characterize it as a coup, apparently because it hoped to avoid the automatic triggering of new sanctions against Pakistan. In New Delhi, the Times of India reported “growing disquiet” among Indian officials about the prospect of a nuclear Pakistan being controlled by a general. “A coming together of the hardline army and religious right-wing political groups may be the perfect recipe for disaster in South Asia,” it quoted one unnamed official as saying. As the Indian army went on full alert, the paper said, “New Delhi is aware that the military regime in Islamabad will mean more trouble in Kashmir. Cross-border terrorism will naturally also be stepped up.”

In the rest of the world, the coup provoked different reactions. The Times of London almost welcomed it. “[I]n almost every way, the fault for Pakistan’s latest crisis can be laid squarely with the Prime Minister himself,” it said in an editorial. “Seldom has a politician so frivolously squandered the goodwill that originally brought him victory against the tainted Government of Benazir Bhutto. … The outside world, like Pakistan’s frustrated voters, may feel that a new government, even one brought in by the army, might be less bad for Pakistan than the distorted democracy it has endured until today.” But London’s liberal Guardian called the coup “a blow to democracy, a blow to Pakistan’s image abroad, and a blow to those who hope for peace in the subcontinent.”

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, pointing out that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is now “under the immediate, direct and absolute control of the military,” said the risk was “not that the unthinkable–the use of nuclear weapons–will suddenly be thought about seriously by Pakistan’s generals. Rather, it is that without even the pretence of civilian control over its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan’s armed forces may feel more confident about flexing their conventional military muscles in pursuit of their own objectives. … General Musharraf has acted in an illegal and indefensible way. He must not be allowed to compound that with recklessness.”

In Canada, the conservative National Post warned that the world may be faced “not only with a military regime but, more worryingly, with the possibility of the Talibanisation of Pakistan.” It added in an editorial, “In these circumstances–which may of course change quickly–the West is right to cut off aid and to withdraw diplomatic support. A Taliban-friendly coup can only add a further element of instability to an already unstable region.”

Marking the official arrival in Sarajevo of the world’s 6 billionth inhabitant, China Daily quoted Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji as saying that his government would continue to make family planning “a fundamental state policy.” Meanwhile, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, a Chinese court has declared that homosexuality is “abnormal and unacceptable to the public.” It is the first time a Chinese court has ruled on the nature of homosexuality, and it did so in awarding damages for psychological damage to a man described as gay in the best-selling book Homosexuals in China. The court ruled that the man had suffered “depression and psychological pain” and damage to his reputation by being described as gay. The author of the book, Fang Dang, said he might appeal. “It is for doctors, not judges, to say if homosexuality is abnormal,” he commented. “The court says that it is considered abnormal, but by whom–all 1.2 billion Chinese? The most authoritative definition is by the World Health Organisation which has removed it from its list of illnesses.”

The Independent of London’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, reported Wednesday that the United States has extradited to Saudi Arabia a man who will almost certainly face the death penalty within a few weeks. The man is Hani el-Sayegh, wanted for a 1996 bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 26 people died. “The country’s ‘justice’–regularly criticised by the US State Department for its routine denial of access to lawyers and trials which fail to meet any international standards–is likely to send Hani el-Sayegh to death whether or not he protests his innocence,” Fisk wrote. He said executions in Saudi Arabia have increased threefold this year: “At least 91 people–including three women–have been publicly beheaded in 1999, including foreign nationals from Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Syria, Jordan, Chad, Ethiopia and Yemen. The three women, all Nigerians, had their scarves ritually stripped from their heads before being put to death by the sword in front of crowds of men beside Saudi mosques.”