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December 21, 2014

Crucifying school children at the altar of Great Power Game

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The stunned and shaken people of Pakistan mourned the Peshawar Army Public School massacre of 149 people including 132 children, and the government announced new measures to combat terrorism. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the removal of the ban on the death penalty for terrorist offences which had been in force since 2008. Mr Sharif had lifted the ban last year, but re-imposed it when he launched peace talks with militants.

Pakistan hanged six the condemned prisoners within two days (Dec. 19 & 20) in the country's first executions in years. The daily Dawn reported that at least 55 death-row prisoners, whose mercy petitions have been rejected by President Mamnoon Hussain recently, are likely to be hanged during the next few days. Before the lifting of a moratorium on executions, mercy petitions of more than 55 convicted prisoners had been pending with the presidency since 2012 as the then president Asif Ali Zardari had not taken any decision on them, apparently because of international pressure, an official told Dawn. As Pakistan went on hanging spree, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced that more than 500 people would be hanged.

The Peshawar Army Public School massacre has sparked an unexpected debate on the 2007 brutal military operation against the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and Hasfa Islamic School in Islamabad where around 2,000 people most of them boys and girls students were killed.

Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid poured sarcasm on the civil society people demonstrating and lighting candles for the Peshawar dead and said they should also have felt pain for the 82 madarsa students killed in Bajaur and other deaths in military operations. “My brother, his family and many people dear to me and a large number of students were killed in army operation here (in Lal Masjid in 2007), but I did not raise such hue and cry,” he said. Maulana Aziz also said that he did not consider the 142 schoolchildren killed by the Taliban in Peshawar “martyrs.”

 Altaf Hussain, leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a leading political party of Pakistan, demanded the arrest of Maulana and closure of Jamia Hafsa for his remarks regarding the Peshawar massacre. A number of people also staged demonstration against Maulana Abdul Aziz in Islamabad. Altaf Hussin also demanded that Jamia Hafsa should be demolished.

Lal Masjid massacre

It may be recalled that several thousand trooped troops stormed the Lal Masjid at dawn on July 10, 2007. The 36-hour brutal operation ended in the death of several hundred people, most of them boys and girls students of Jamia Hafsa.

The regime of General Parwez Musharraf deployed several thousand troops, including many of Pakistan’s elite units, in the heavily-populated center of the capital, Islamabad, then ordered an attack on the Lal Masjid that included artillery barrages, even though they knew that hundreds of unarmed people, including women and children, likely remained inside. According to some accounts, Musharraf personally directed the assault, which was led by an elite commando unit that he had previously commanded.

Pakistani authorities claimed to have found 75 bodies in the Lal Masjid and put the total number of dead in the eight-day siege at around 108, including ten military personnel. Eighty-five of the 108 deaths reportedly came during the two-day storming of the Lal Masjid.

The Dawn, a leading English daily, reported that an unnamed source who had visited the Lal Masjid and the adjacent Jamia Hafsa seminary for women shortly after the army takeover said the floors were littered with corpses wrapped in white shrouds: “I could not count them but they must be in the hundreds.” The Dawn also observed that “a promised media trip to the site was put off a day, fuelling speculation that the government was buying time to remove some telltale signs.”

Ever since the military launched its action to seize the mosque, reporters were barred from the three closest hospitals, so as prevent them from gauging the number of dead and wounded. Reporters who toured the mosque complex, after the operation,  described it as a battlefield, with bullet-riddled, blood-stained, and in some cases blown-out walls.

Musharraf, in his speech to the nation, repeated the charge that foreign fighters had been ensconced in the Lal Masjid, but offered no proof.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, strongly praised the Pakistani government’s brutal operation of the Lal Masjid. Speaking as the military operation was in full swing, Bush professed his admiration for the dictator Musharraf and his efforts to build “democracy” in Pakistan: “I like him and I appreciate him.”

On the Lal Masjid assault, Bill Van Auken, presidential candidate of the US Socialist Equality Party in 2004, wrote: "For many years, Lal Masjid was virtually a government-run mosque, enjoying the patronage of successive Pakistani military rulers going back to (Field Marshal) Ayub Khan more than 40 years ago.

"It was under the last military dictator, Zia ul Haq, that the mosque became closely enmeshed in the policies then being pursued by both the Pakistani regime and the US in the region. It served as a significant ideological and material base of support for the CIA-backed mujahideen fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In return, Zia granted it the exclusive real estate where yesterday’s (July 10) fighting unfolded.

"Maulana Abdullah, the Muslim cleric who ran the mosque for decades, was assassinated in 1998. His sons— Abul Aziz, in custody  and Abdul Rashid, killed in the assault —took charge of Lal Masjid, maintaining close ties to the successors of the mujahideen, including Afghanistan’s Taliban and Al Qaeda—a relationship they shared with the Pakistani regime and the ISI (Pakistani Intelligence Agency)."

To borrow Keith Jones,  there is much evidence to show Pakistani authorities allowed the Las Masjid agitation to develop, ignoring for months actions that challenged the government’s legitimacy. As numerous observers have pointed out, it is ludicrous to suppose that large quantities of arms and ammunition could have been smuggled into the Lal Masjid unbeknownst to the ISI high command, whose plush offices are within easy walking distance.

82 killed in Bajaur madarsa bombing

Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid has said the people who are holding candle light vigils for the victims of Peshawar Army School should also have felt pain for the 82 madarsa students killed in Bajaur and other deaths in military operations.

At least 82 people, almost all of them students, were killed in a missile attack on a madarsa in Damadola village in Bajaur  region on October 30, 2006. An eyewitness has stated that the madrassa was filled with local students who had resumed studies after the Eid ul-Fitr holiday.

Dawn newspaper quoted local residents as saying that the air strike was carried out by fixed-wing US drones which fired hellfire missiles at the compound, killing all those inside the seminary, including its administrator Maulvi Liaqat Ali.  “Pakistani helicopters arrived 20 minutes later and fired rockets at the hillside,” one resident said. The US denied involvement.

Maulana Sirajul Haq, the senior Minister and Provincial Chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, resigned from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwah cabinet in protest against the strikes. Sahibzada Haroonur Rashid, Member of National Assembly from Bajaur Agency, also resigned from the National Assembly in protest. No journalist was allowed to enter into Bajaur and passengers entering the tribal region were asked to identify themselves.

Surprisingly, the strike on Damadola, the second since January 2006, came the day the government was expected to sign a peace agreement with militants in Bajaur replicating the September 5 truce reached with militants in North Waziristan, Dawn reported.

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