2008 Archive

Radhika Sainath ’08 visits Pakistan to study state of emergency

Radhika Sainath

During her many social justice endeavors in various parts of the world, Radhika Sainath ’08 has been tear-gassed, arrested, interrogated, and jailed. So her decision to fly to Pakistan just three days after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, amid growing turmoil surrounding the presidency of Pervez Musharraf, prompted no second thoughts.

Not one to shy away from difficult human rights conflicts, Sainath was part of an eight-member National Lawyers Guild delegation that visited Pakistan from January 2-12. The group examined how Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency on November 3—when he suspended the constitution and unilaterally removed more than 60 high court judges—affected Pakistan’s developing democracy. Delegation members visited four cities and interviewed more than 50 jurists, lawyers, civil servants, journalists, political party representatives, elected officials, students, activists and others.

"The clear consensus was that Musharraf has been disingenuous in telling the U.S. that he can’t fight the war on terror with a free press and an independent judiciary," says Sainath. "We talked to everyone from Marxists to Muslim fundamentalists, and they pretty much all emphasized those same themes."

The delegation’s preliminary report concluded that restoring the deposed judges is essential to avoid lasting negative impacts on Pakistan’s judiciary and rule of law. It also said the U.S. failure to demand reinstatement of the deposed judges will hinder the growth of democracy in Pakistan. "Our findings suggest that current U.S. policy is undermining our long-term interests in safety and security there," Sainath says, "and that supporting Musharraf has inflamed the situation."

In March 2007, Musharraf asked the Chief Justice of Pakistan (Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry) to resign. The judiciary was increasingly checking the executive branch, and Chaudhry had ordered intelligence agencies to produce "disappeared" persons in court in a series of cases involving people detained without charge.

On November 3, reportedly fearing the Supreme Court would declare him ineligible to run for reelection, Musharraf imposed martial law and removed the 60-plus judges. Pakistan’s constitution does not permit military officers to seek the presidency, and Musharraf had been army chief until resigning that post on November 28.

Sainath’s delegation was invited on the trip by Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences and its Rule of Law Project, which documents and researches constitutionalism and the rule of law. The delegation co-wrote its preliminary report with the Rule of Law Project, and is working on a final report for presentation to government officials and the public. With Musharraf’s party suffering a jarring defeat in parliamentary elections on February 19, Pakistan’s future is a growing concern in Washington.

"Our current push is to talk to congressmen and senators and foreign policy staffers, and we’ve been excited to hear that Pakistan seems to be on the agenda for a lot of them," Sainath says. "I feel like people have open ears and they’re trying to learn more about the situation. But some have a skewed image of what’s happening, and think that U.S. support of a dictator is the only way to prevent the rise of militants."

Sainath, who grew up in Newport Beach, California, has worked on international human rights issues for years. She organized union textile workers in East Coast factories and the Los Angeles garment district, monitored human-rights abuses of indigenous villagers during the 2000 Mexico elections, and spent a year volunteering for the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank. During her time at Boalt, Sainath has worked at the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund on issues relating to national security, war crimes, free speech and immigrant rights.

"My parents are immigrants from India, and my motivation to work for social justice is affected by my identity and India’s history of non-violent resistance," says Sainath, who plans to pursue public interest legal work after graduating from Boalt. "Getting involved in this Pakistan project stems from my interest in social movements and grassroots organizing, and what’s happening there has very real implications for the U.S."

—By Andrew Cohen 3/4/2008