Sharif has a Right to a Passport

Gulf News, July 13, 2005

The hesitation of the Pakistani authorities in issuing a new passport to Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, highlights Pakistan’s greatest weakness. Pakistan is a country run on the whims of its rulers rather than on the basis of its constitution and laws enacted by elected legislatures.

Under Pakistani law, every citizen is entitled to a passport upon presentation of proof of citizenship, usually a national identity card.

There is no dispute that Sharif is a Pakistani citizen. The government’s claim that he agreed on December 9, 2000, under a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia, to live in exile for an unspecified period is irrelevant to his right to a passport as a citizen.

How can an unlawful deal between a captor and a captive trump one’s citizenship rights?

In any case, the government has failed to produce the agreement it claims was reached between the Sharif family at the time he was released from prison and sent into exile.

Sharif was toppled in a coup d’etat in 1999 and imprisoned, later to be charged with several “crimes”. If he was, as the military government claimed, a criminal, Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf had no right to release and pardon him without completing the due process of law.

If, however, he was innocent, there was no justification in imprisoning him simply because the military found him to be unworthy of running the country.

In either case, where does Pakistan’s constitution (even after its many mutilations) empower the chief of army staff to deprive a Pakistani of the right to return to his country or to secure a passport for travel abroad?

Even if Musharraf’s claim is right and Sharif went into exile voluntarily, the alleged agreement was political rather than a legally binding one.

If Musharraf can go back on his political agreement with the opposition regarding relinquishing his military uniform at the end of 2004 due to changed circumstances, what prevents Sharif from backing out of his unwritten commitment not to return to Pakistan?

In any case, what does any of this have to do with his right to possess a Pakistani passport?

Not long ago, Pakistani authorities appeared to link renewing the passport of Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister, to knowing her travel plans.

Not the first time

The reluctance of the government to issue Sharif his passport is not the first time in Pakistan’s history that citizenship rights have been arbitrarily determined by the country’s rulers.

In 1971, after the creation of Bangladesh, several hundred thousand Pakistani citizens were stranded in their country’s former Eastern wing. These people and their families had migrated from India to Pakistan at the time of the 1947 partition to become Pakistani citizens.

When the country was torn into two, they chose to remain Pakistanis and demanded the right to return to the remaining part of Pakistan.

Any other country would have recognised that right without any argument and arranged for their repatriation. But successive Pakistani governments argued that the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh would upset the ethnic balance in West Pakistan and put an undue burden on the country’s economy.

In a tragic farce, General Zia-ul Haq’s military regime tied repatriation of Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh to availability of international assistance.

Saudi Arabia helped create a trust to fund the return of Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh to Pakistan. But since when are citizenship rights a matter of economics?

The Pakistanis in Bangladesh should have been issued Pakistani passports based on their citizenship and their inalienable right of return to their country of citizenship. They would have found a way of eking out a living just as tens of millions of other Pakistanis do.

The disregard for law in relation to passports, but in the reverse direction, was witnessed in 1993 when the Pakistani military wanted to install Mo’en Qureshi as caretaker prime minister.

Qureshi had lived in the United States for several decades, had taken up US citizenship and by most accounts had neither regularly renewed his Pakistani passport nor obtained a Pakistani national identity card.

He was issued his national identity card and passport in Singapore so that he would not arrive in the country without these documents before becoming the prime minister.

He was, of course, entitled to Pakistani citizenship and there is no reason to either impugn his commitment or services to Pakistan. The issue is that it was not Qureshi’s right as a dual citizen but rather the desire of the army commander at the time to name him caretaker prime minister that secured him his passport.

Had it been a matter of right, Sharif’s right to a passport would have received the same attention at the Pakistani consulate in Jeddah that Qureshi’s did at the Pakistan embassy in Singapore.