By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Newspapers, Feb. 14, 2008
FAISALABAD, Pakistan — A prominent U.S.-based human rights group Friday released what it said was a recording of Pakistan's attorney general acknowledging that next week's national elections would be "massively" rigged.
Human Rights Watch said a journalist made the recording during a telephone interview with Attorney General Malik Qayyum when Qayyum took a second call without disconnecting the first, allowing his end of the second conversation to be overheard and recorded.
In the recording, Qayyum, Pakistan's top legal officer, can be heard advising the caller to accept a ticket he is being offered by an unidentified political party for a seat, Human Rights Watch said.
"They will massively rig to get their own people to win," Qayyum said, according to a transcript released by Human Rights Watch. "If you get a ticket from these guys, take it."
The potentially incendiary recording was made the day that elections were announced for Jan. 8, according to Human Rights Watch, which said the Urdu-language recording could be heard on its Web site, www.hrw.org. The polls for the national assembly and four provincial legislatures were postponed until this Monday after large-scale violence ignited by the Dec. 27 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The recording was certain to add to widespread fears that the polls will be rigged in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the party that supports the authoritarian and hugely unpopular president, Pervez Musharraf, a retired army general who seized power in a 1999 coup.
On Thursday, Musharraf warned the opposition that it must accept the outcome of Monday's voting, without resorting to massive street protests.
"Let there be no doubt that anyone will be allowed to resort to lawlessness in the garb of allegations about rigging in the elections," Musharraf was quoted as telling a seminar of government officials in Islamabad by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan. "Let this serve as a warning to all those who think they can disturb the peace of the country. They will not be allowed. Do not test the resolve of the government."
"No agitation, anarchy or chaos can be acceptable," he said. "I assure you that the elections will be fair, free, and transparent and peaceful."
Fears that the polls will be fixed have been stoked by a series of public opinion surveys showing the Pakistan Peoples Party and other parties poised to capture enough seats to begin impeachment proceedings against Musharraf for controversial constitutional changes he imposed last year to extend his grip on power.
Musharraf's standing, and that of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, also has been hurt by skyrocketing prices, shortages of electricity, gas and wheat, a failure to contain the Islamic insurgency based in the tribal area bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan's support for the Bush administration's fight against al Qaida.
"There have been numerous allegations of irregularities, including arrests and harassment of opposition candidates and party members. There are also allegations that state resources, administration, and state machinery are being used to the advantage of candidates backed by President Pervez Musharraf," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said it had tried repeatedly to contact Qayyum, a staunch supporter of Musharraf, but had been unable to reach him.
In Washington on Friday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he was not familiar with the Human Rights Watch report. But he said the Bush administration has stressed to the Musharraf government that " the Pakistani people should have a reasonable degree of assurance that their ballot will in fact be reflected in the results."
"Look, you know, there have been in the past irregularities within the Pakistani electoral process," McCormack said.
On Thursday, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zadari, held a final campaign rally in the same dusty park where his wife gave her first political address in 1977.
Security was intense, reflecting a surge in suicide bombings that's included attacks on opposition campaign rallies. Police sharpshooters scanned the crowds from rooftops and black-clad commandos stood among scores of security men deployed around the stage.
The stage itself was set far back from fences of steel scaffolding and barbed wire that restrained the flag- and banner-waving crowd of about 6,000. Zadari spoke from behind a podium made of bulletproof glass and steel.
Without mentioning Musharraf by name, Zardari, who assumed joint chairmanship of the party with his son after Bhutto's slaying, said that it was time "to change our system."
"Benazir was a martyr. She believed in you, in the brothers and sisters, and I also believe in you," he proclaimed.