Pakistan's political discontent spilled onto the chilly sidewalks of Boston Common yesterday, when dozens of Pakistani students and professionals protested President Pervez Musharraf's recent sweeping crackdown on lawyers, human rights activists, and political opponents.
Dressed in traditional black choga mourning dresses and wearing red armbands to signify protest and blood, the demonstrators demanded that Musharraf end the state of emergency he has imposed. They also criticized the US government for supporting Pakistan's president, widely considered a key ally in Washington's war against Islamic terrorism.
"Musharraf is fooling the American government that he is the only solution to terrorism, but he is destroying institutions of democracy," said Aslam Khaki, a Pakistani Supreme Court lawyer visiting the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.
"He has been able to present himself as the only thing standing between democracy and extremism," said Aqil Sajjad, 28, an Islamabad native and a postgraduate physics student at Harvard. "But people who are being targeted are not extremists."
At least 2,500 lawyers, human rights activists, and opposition political party workers have been arrested since Musharraf introduced emergency rule and suspended the constitution on Nov. 3. Several of them were family friends of Fawza Wali Khan, one of the organizers of yesterday's protest and a psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center of Boston.
"We are against arresting the intelligentsia in Pakistan," said Khan.
"If they arrest all the lawyers, who will fight for restoration of democracy?" asked Lubna Mahmood, 37, whose brother, a corporate lawyer in Lahor, was detained for several hours last week. He was released only because the holding cells in the police precinct were full, said Mahmood, a Boston resident who carried a hand-drawn sign that read: "Free Our Lawyers."
The White House has urged Musharraf to end emergency rule and to cooperate with Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and opposition leader.
The Bush administration has encouraged Musharraf to drop charges against Bhutto in hopes that a broader base of support would help the general, who is criticized by pro-Western Pakistanis and religious extremists, to stay in power.
The only road to true democracy in Pakistan lies through electing a popular president who would replace Musharraf, the protesters on Boston Common said yesterday.
"No, Musharraf, no!" they chanted, dancing to an intricate rhythm of tabla drums and tambourines. "Save democracy, not hypocrisy!"