By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
LAHORE, Pakistan, March 20 -- When the police broke into the offices of some of this city's best-known lawyers last week, they didn't hold back. They smashed through doors and windows, tossed computers, ransacked files and beat anyone standing in their way with iron-tipped batons.
"We couldn't even see them because of the tear gas, but we could hear the cries of our lawyers," said Khurram Latif Khosa, a counselor who was in the courtyard below.
To Khosa, the raid was a clear message from Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf: Don't cross me. But Khosa, like lawyers across this country, is failing to heed it.
In a controversy that has gripped Pakistan and poses perhaps the most serious challenge yet to Musharraf's leadership, the nation's executive and judiciary are clashing over the president's decision nearly two weeks ago to suspend the Supreme Court chief justice. Lawyers in black suits have staged almost daily protests since, as the president's political opponents joined in. The police have responded with several raids, including one on the nation's most popular television station. A major protest is expected Wednesday in the capital, Islamabad, with organizers calling for a nationwide strike.
To the lawyers and other Musharraf critics, the protests are about far more than a decision to suspend a judge. The larger question, they say, is whether Pakistan will be governed by the rule of law, or by one-man rule.
"People are starting to deeply resent this idea that he is the only one who knows what is right for Pakistan. Are the rest of us 160 million bloody idiots?" said Ejaz Haider, news editor of the Friday Times newspaper.
Musharraf, a U.S. ally who came to power nearly eight years ago in a bloodless coup, has defended the suspension, saying there were serious allegations against the judge and he was obligated to refer them to a special council that will rule on the matter. So far, the exact allegations have not been made public.
As for the behavior of the police, the president has tried to distance himself, and even alleged there is "a conspiracy" within his government to embarrass him. Musharraf also denied accusations that he is trying to manufacture an emergency so he can postpone elections this fall.
"We will go forward on the course, which is elections this year when the five-year tenure of assemblies is completed. I am firmly resolved to do that and I will do it," he said in an interview Monday with Geo television, the private Pakistani network raided by police only three days earlier.
Critics are unconvinced. The suspension, they say, is part of an effort by an autocratic president to snuff out fledgling democratic institutions that challenge his authority.
"This is an attack on the judiciary as an institution. Tomorrow, other institutions might be victims of the attack," said Ahsan Bhoon, president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association. "If the dictator is not stopped, there will be anarchy. There will be civil war."
Pakistani legal experts say Musharraf was within his rights in referring allegations against the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, to a special council for review. But many say he erred in suspending Chaudhry before the council ruled on the allegations. On Tuesday, one of Pakistan's three deputy attorneys general resigned, saying the crisis had made it "very difficult" for him to perform his duties, the Reuters news agency reported.
Chaudhry, who was appointed by Musharraf, has won praise in legal circles for his willingness to stand up to the government. Late last year, for instance, he pressed for information about individuals who allegedly disappeared at the hands of the nation's intelligence services.
The elections pose a major test for Musharraf later this year, and Chaudhry was expected to rule on issues that could complicate the president's bid for another term. Among the open questions is whether Musharraf will face a vote in the current parliament to endorse him for another term as head of state, or in a new parliament that might view him less favorably. The current parliament came to power in 2002 elections that were marked by irregularities. Also in doubt is whether Musharraf will have to resign his post as head of the army, a critical job in Pakistan.
"All his power comes from his uniform. None of it comes from the constitution," said Zafar Ali Shah, a leading opposition figure.
Political opponents have been quick to take the lawyers' side in the dispute over Chaudhry. Since Musharraf came to power, the opposition has been badly fractured. Vigorous economic growth during his tenure, plus the failure of past democratic governments, has made it difficult for opponents to mount a strong challenge. But in recent weeks, right- and left-wing groups have stood shoulder to shoulder in demonstrations.
They have not received much support from abroad, however. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has defended the president, saying Tuesday that "President Musharraf has made a commitment to change Pakistan, and we think that that is a positive thing."
One Western diplomat said that Musharraf had made "a blunder" but that there was still time to recover. "This could go badly, but it could also all go away in a couple of days," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. "What will be telling is if we start seeing average citizens -- not lawyers and not party members -- coming out on the streets. And if we see protests going beyond the major urban centers."
The general public's failure to join the demonstrations so far may be the result of the nature of the controversy. It hinges on complex constitutional questions in a country with illiteracy rates around 50 percent.
In Lahore, long the intellectual and cultural capital of the country, thousands of lawyers have taken to the city's frenetic streets to protest. On Saturday, they were preparing to lead a demonstration from the century-old court buildings when, they said, the police preemptively assaulted them with tear gas, rocks and baton charges. Days later, several admitted to throwing rocks back -- but they said there was no doubt the police initiated the fracas.
"We were not armed. Our weapons were words -- that's all," said Khosa, 39, whose hand was wrapped in bandages after he was struck by a baton while defending his father during an earlier protest last week. His father, also a lawyer, needed six stitches to close a wound on his forehead after he was hit.
In all, 100 lawyers were injured Saturday in Lahore, and at least 40 offices were ransacked. The city's police chief declined to comment.
At a boisterous meeting Monday, hundreds of lawyers listened to speech after speech condemning the president, and responded by chanting, "Go Musharraf, go!"
Before departing, the lawyers were told to prepare for the protest on Wednesday.
"As lawyers, we are peaceful," said one speaker, Azam Nazir Tarar. "But we are not afraid of bullets."