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Dawn Editorial 16 March 2020

PML-N divisions

THERE is trouble brewing within the PML-N. With Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif away in London for some months now, Maryam Nawaz in political hibernation — her recent brief appearance notwithstanding — and Hamza Shahbaz in jail, the family leadership of the party is practically inactive.
Read more: PML-N demands Shehbaz Sharif’s return from London
Now there are reports of disgruntlement within the rank and file about the lack of direction of the party. The parliamentary party meeting held earlier this week saw heated exchanges between some senior members amid a rising chorus that Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif return home. The general drift has also affected the party’s relationship with the PPP and the JUI-F both of whom feel that the PML-N has abdicated its responsibility towards the other opposition parties. If the PML-N leadership has a game plan, very few in the party seem to be aware of it. This is problematic at various levels.
By opting to vote in favour of the extension of the army chief, the PML-N leadership took a huge decision to change the strategic direction of its politics. The decision came as a surprise to almost every party leader and parliamentarian. It was followed as ordered but people remained uncertain why the decision was taken and how it would benefit the party. Many weeks later, the party rank and file still remains unaware of the contours of this new party policy.
The release from jail of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal, two front-line leaders, promised greater clarity and direction, but, instead, their positions and statements seem to be highlighting the cleavages within the leadership. This confusion coincided with some PML-N MPAs in Punjab meeting the chief minister thereby triggering speculation about the emergence of a forward bloc within the party. It was perhaps an attempt to stem this drift that Maryam Nawaz ended her silence and made a public visit to Islamabad.
If it wants to remain relevant the party would have to put its house in order. The most obvious step towards this end would be for the head of the party to do politics within the country, build a clear narrative and coordinate with other opposition leaders. A leadership calling the shots from foreign shores will only dishearten party members at home, to the point where defections would not be surprising. The PML-N may be going through a phase of self-reckoning but if this phase stretches for too long — which it is — it can easily lead to a loss of confidence, clarity and cohesion. Keeping the party guessing is never a good policy option whichever way one looks at it. The top-tier leadership may want to make amends before the disgruntlement gets louder, while Mr Shahbaz Sharif might also want to consider the great injustice he is doing to his position as opposition leader in parliament by staying away.


Justice without mercy

“IF a person is mentally ill, how can you hang them?” inquired former chief justice Saqib Nisar, when he was overhearing the case of two mentally unfit death-row prisoners in 2018. Imdad Ali, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia on more than one occasion, had been sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of a religious teacher. Meanwhile, Kanizan Bibi, who happened to be mute and also diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been behind bars for nearly three decades, charged for assisting the murder of six individuals. According to her family, she was forced to confess to the killings under duress by the police. Two years later, both are still languishing in jail, even though their death sentences have been stayed in the past — multiple times in Imdad Ali’s case. Now, a five-judge Supreme Court bench will hear a review petition filed on behalf of the two prisoners at the end of this month.
It is unfortunate that mental illness is still not taken seriously in Pakistan. And even the most learned members of society are not immune from misinformation. Readers may recall the words of the Supreme Court when it initially dismissed an appeal to delay the hanging of Imdad Ali back in 2016. In an 11-page judgement, the esteemed judges referred to schizophrenia as a “curable disease” which did not classify as a mental disorder. And even if it did, they elaborated, “rules relating to mental sickness are not subjugative to delay the execution of death sentence”. The judgement was criticised by many in the country and made international headlines, until a fresh petition by his lawyers and review filed by the Punjab government led to his execution being suspended — for the third time. Even though Pakistan lifted an informal moratorium on the death penalty in 2015, it is bound by international law to ensure humane treatment of prisoners who suffer from mental disorders. And yet, the lives of so many individuals hangs in the balance, as they continue to suffer inside the confines of overcrowded detention centres, fated to be condemned as prisoners rather than patients in need of urgent medical attention. Inhumane conditions inside prisons can also exacerbate mental health problems, and some experts say that the number of mentally ill prisoners is on the increase. We must remember the words of one of history’s most well-known jurists: “Justice without mercy is cruelty.”


New BISP beneficiaries

JUST one cycle of unseasonal weather, the death of a sole breadwinner, or the vagaries of fate in some other form, can drive the poorest of the poor to the edge of survival for an extended period. For those in the lowest income strata, a monthly stipend of Rs5,000 per month under the Benazir Income Support Programme can help keep the home fires burning and provide a cushion against financial shocks. It is therefore heartening to see the PTI government give due importance to this premier social security scheme, especially at a time when double-digit inflation is pushing the poor even deeper into poverty. On Friday, the National Assembly was informed that over 4.4m new names are being added to the list of beneficiaries and that 70,000 had already been included in 15 districts.
The unconditional cash transfers made under BISP since the programme was introduced in 2008 with a monthly stipend of Rs1,000 have had a multifaceted socioeconomic impact. Not only have they increased the purchasing power of millions of households, they have also sustained innumerable small businesses across the country. Moreover, BISP has empowered women who constitute, by design, most of the recipients — as is seemly considering whom the programme is named after. However, some spring-cleaning of this massive countrywide scheme was clearly needed. In December, the government announced that 800,125 names had been removed from the beneficiaries’ list after BISP data revealed they were “undeserving” of inclusion. Further forensic analysis brought more shocking revelations to the fore: over 140,000 of such beneficiaries were government servants. It is difficult to comprehend the callousness that can motivate some to misappropriate funds meant to ameliorate the desperate poverty of fellow Pakistanis. Investigations so far have resulted in the recovery of Rs600,000 of the embezzled funds in what one hopes is a sustained process. A programme such as BISP needs to be regularly, and transparently, updated. Without transparency it can easily be tainted by accusations that it is being used to serve political ends.


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