Sir: There has been debate about whether the forthcoming Pakistan elections will be free and fair. I know from my intelligence sources that they can't be. Not as presently organised. Like a carefully planned military operation, they are on the way to being "stolen" already. However many EU observers and foreign well-wishers are planning to be there, it will make little difference if key organisational and counting procedures are not changed, immediately.
There are many quiet ways of stealing an election, which keep these activities under the "radar" of election observers, foreign governments and the media. A mosaic of different tactics brings targeted voters' numbers down, so stealing marginal seats – and doubtless safe ones. Each tweak of the voting system, every inconvenience, every stage-managed "problem" brings the voting numbers of targeted parties down. Each obstacle further demoralises and confuses constituency parties, candidates, voters, even the media.
A campaign of misinformation, errors and hold-ups, stuffed ballot boxes, rigged computer analyses of votes cast, blows opposition parties off course. Their votes get reduced; then their tally of seats, then their numbers in parliament.
The elections of 2002 and 2004 were rigged – and Musharraf vowed not to do so again. It is disappointing to find this promise broken, with his ruling party still running the electoral process, with the intelligence services assisting from the shadows.
I fear for the outcome of the February elections; for the tensions and violence that may be unleashed, especially after the murder of Benazir Bhutto. The masses will not stand for being cheated of a fair result, yet again. The voters will put up resistance; and our country, already on the brink of implosion, would not be in a position to avert it.
Wajid Shamsul Hasan
London NW3 (The writer is Former Pakistan High Commissioner to London)
One family trapped in the siege of Gaza
Sir: I would like to congratulate the Gazans on their non-violent initiative of opening the border with Egypt, and encourage the Israeli government to take this opportunity to open their border with Gaza and to start working towards a just peace.
My sister-in-law has just had a baby. I'd really like to visit her, but we can't get in to Gaza, so that's not possible just now. I'd like to send her a present for the baby, but there is no post in Gaza.
When I spoke to my sister-in-law, she said they've got no bread – they haven't been able to get flour to make bread. They've got rice and potatoes, which they have to cook in the yard in front of their flat, on a wood fire. There is no electricity, they have run out of gas, and her house was never designed to take a wood fire, there is no chimney, so they were stuck out in the cold. That is no way to treat a new mother.
The border with Israel is completely closed at the moment – nothing and nobody can get in or out, not even aid workers, aid supplies, food, water filters, or fuel.
On Saturday there is a protest convoy going from within Israel to the Erez checkpoint, with aid supplies – flour, water filters (Gaza's water is really dirty – water filters are a basic necessity). They are going to demand that the soldiers at the checkpoint allow the supplies in to Gaza. They are prepared for a long wait. Kibbutzim near the checkpoint, within Qassam rocket range, have offered to store the supplies while they wait.
I sympathise with Sderot's residents, and Israelis have the right to live in as much peace and safety as the rest of us. But siege and collective punishment, driving 1.5 million people to the edge of starvation, are no answer.
Sir: Dr Denis MacEoin (letter, 23 January) is angry at the rocket attacks on southern Israel being treated as a "mere irritation". Yet surely virtually anything, including the Qassam rocket attacks on Israel, pales into insignificance when compared with the imprisonment of 1.5 million Gazans in the strip.
Israel's response must be the biggest over-reaction in history: imprisoning the entire population of a region, causing unimaginable misery, suffering, and, of course, death, in response to the killing of just two Israeli civilians (since 2007). Are the Israeli population not responsible for the deaths that ensued from the cutting off of power to Gaza, in the same way he claims that Gazans are to blame for deaths caused by Hamas? This claim is ridiculous.
Sir, I am delighted to hear that "Israel is not an occupying power [in Gaza]" (Denis MacEoin's letter). If they are not then surely the Palestinians in Gaza have a right to know – as do we – who is controlling their airspace, territorial waters, borders, tax revenues, fresh water supply and the like.
Cult of perfection betrays women
Sir: Janet Street-Porter (Magazine, 19 January) tries hard to undermine the "beauty industry" by giving us tips on her own "beauty regime". So we should now use Tesco moisturiser, make sure that we dye our hair (because nobody over 40 should aspire to the "natural look") and get our hairdresser to come round to our home or office after work, and "that way, getting your hair done is fun".
We should not drink or smoke, and "even if life's too short to spend £100 on a face cream", we should still make sure that we cleanse, moisturise and put on eye cream even if we are so drunk that we can't talk.
I don't know which world Janet lives in, and I'm not sure that she appreciates the world the rest of us inhabit, with "real lives, noisy kids, irritating partners, demanding jobs" and no friendly hairdresser on call, but no matter how much she criticises the "beauty industry" she still betrays her gender by showing how much she has been influenced by its diktats.
Janet, don't tell us that "if you are taller than average and more than a size 10, once you pass 30, just forget getting your hair cropped". Tell women that it does not matter what the "beauty industry" says, just do what feels good for you. Wash your face with whatever you want, wear whatever you want, change your hair or stay grey, don't be ashamed of your wrinkles or your flabby midriff.
Isn't this what women's liberation was about? It's not only beauty editors who are "traitors to their sex", Janet. You are maintaining the illusion of female bodily perfection even when you attempt to criticise it.
Private schools are not the problem
Sir: Independent schools are not the cause of the problems facing education. Recent letters, have accused them of pretending to be charitable and of "creaming off" the best pupils and hence consigning many state schools to mediocrity. These accusations are unfounded.
Without charitable status, many independent schools simply would not survive, and while many may think this a good result, bursaries provide a valuable lifeline for pupils who would not otherwise receive a good education. With bursaries, pupils who might otherwise struggle in disruptive, overcrowded classrooms and would not be pushed academically, are given the chance of fulfilling their potential. Of course, there are not enough bursaries and of course independent schools should offer more, but they do represent genuine charity and are not simply the tax dodge that people claim.
As to the accusation of depriving state schools of the best pupils, it is claimed that, if only state schools could have those pupils, all their students would improve. Perhaps this is true in the best state schools, but in the problem schools that we hear so much about, it would not help at all. In fact, it would prevent the best pupils from achieving their potential as they are condemned to suffer disruption and a lack of encouragement from their fellow pupils. Independent schools, with their bursaries, provide a way out, at least until the problems in the state sector can be solved.
The problem facing education in this country is not independent schools; it is disruption and a lack of aspiration. It recently emerged that some state schools discourage their pupils from applying to the best universities. The dissolution of independent schools will simply deprive many of a high-quality education. It will not solve our problems.
Sir: Ibrahim Hewitt, Head teacher of a faith-based school, argues that the use of the word "apartheid" to describe Britain's divided education system is misleading (letter, 22 January). While the word may be over-strong, the general idea is valid.
He goes on to defend parents who send their children to his school, saying: "Many . . . can ill afford our relatively modest fees but make the effort because they do care." But what is it that they care about? They clearly don't care about the damaging effects of separatist schooling on our wider society.
What possible benefit accrues to British society from some children being educated separately according to their parent's wealth or faith? On the contrary, it is immensely damaging and perpetuates the deep divisions that exist along those lines. It would be more beneficial in the long term for our children to be educated together, thus beginning to heal these rifts and to raise standards for all.
Sir: May I respectfully suggest that you and all your correspondents who wish to close private schools have a look at the second protocol to the European declaration of human rights, which enshrines the right of parents to have children educated in accordance with their religious and philosophical views. I would suggest that this renders closing of private schools impossible.
Maresfield, East Sussex
Britain ignores the hero of Everest
Sir: Congratulations to The Independent for giving such good coverage to the life and times of Ed Hillary. This was in stark contrast to the UK television media which, apart from simply reporting the death of this outstanding individual, has failed to report upon his state funeral in any meaningful way. It was said that the event was to be "beamed worldwide" but I must have blinked at the wrong moment.
It was also a disgrace that Britain was not represented on the day by anyone of real significance, either from our Royal Family or our government. Many of us will remember how the Everest success was used to bolster the celebrations of the Coronation in 1953.
In a few days I will be in New Zealand on holiday and expect to be embarrassed if the locals question the poor recognition afforded by Britain to Ed Hillary's lifetime achievements.
Why migrants have a right to NHS care
Sir: In advocating restrictions on asylum-seekers' access to NHS services, Mark Curtis (Letters, 22 January) seems to have misunderstood the concept of the welfare state.
Health treatment is not something to which you get a "legitimate right" by paying tax. It isn't like buying something in a shop, where you only get the goods if you pay the money, and those who pay more get better goods, and those with no money must go without.
Instead, those who can afford to pay tax, pay into a common pool (theoretically according to their means, although we are now a very long way from that ideal), and it is spent on those who are most in need. I would say that anyone who has gone to the lengths of fleeing their home to escape persecution or violence falls into that category, wouldn't you?
Sir: Mark Curtis suggests that hospital staff should notify the immigration service of the presence of illegal immigrants. Does he think the immigration service will "blue light" down to any A&E department to check on a suspected illegal immigrant. In the meantime how does he propose the doctors and nurses detain the person?
Asking people their ID and then delaying or denying genuine emergency treatment would be against my own ethical medical principles and would be against their basic human rights.
The problem of immigration lies not with the organs of the state providing public services, but government policy.
Naeem Toosy FRCS (Ed)
Sir: Will Gordon Brown be receiving refunded payments when a patient regains weight ("Obese will be paid to lose weight", 24 January)? Or does the Government believe that money will be the end of all the causes of obesity?
The abolition of England
Sir: I've noticed recently that the BBC constantly says "English regions" instead of England? As an Englishman I find this most confusing. They don't mention the Scottish, Welsh or Irish regions, just the English ones. Regionalism was rejected by the people of the North-east in a democratic vote and has never been popular with the English, yet it seems the BBC is following the Labour agenda and implying that the land I love is composed of nine European-style regions and consigning England to the dustbin of history.
Sir: A little additional information about the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" (letter, 23 January). It was written by John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker, by definition a pacifist, which makes its use as a "symbol of courage in war" even more inappropriate.
Christina van Melzen
Sir:I listened with astonishment to the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, on Today on Radio 4 on Thursday morning, as she tried to defend her proposal to extend the detention period for suspected terrorists to 42 days. When it was suggested that the grounds for her proposal were purely hypothetical, she said: "It won't be hypothetical if and when it occurs." I do hope that Ms Smith listens back to what she said and realises how nonsensical it was. What an embarrassment the Government has become.
Tooled up for school
Sir: In reply to Peter Smith (letter, 23 January), the machine that checked that I was properly equipped for school 40-plus years ago was called a mother.