Lawyers: Pakistan Political Conscience

The Associated Press
Thursday, November 8, 2007; 1:53 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Thousands of black-suited lawyers facing police batons and tear gas to protest the declaration of emergency rule have become Pakistan's political conscience.

Enraged by President Pervez Musharraf's assault on independent judges, the legal community has eclipsed discredited opposition parties as the torchbearers for democracy.

The general's botched attempt to oust Pakistan's top judge this spring sparked a mass movement against military rule, with lawyers in the vanguard. That put wind in the sails of a defiant Supreme Court, which challenged Musharraf's dominance and the secret workings of Pakistan's spy agencies.

Fearing the court would declare his recent presidential election victory illegal, Musharraf finally pulled the plug on its activism on Saturday by suspending the constitution and purging its ranks. Deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, now under house arrest, has urged lawyers to revolt.

"With one stroke of his pen, Musharraf has removed the entire Supreme Court of a country _ it's incredible," said Nadeem Hasan, one of dozens of lawyers who gather daily in Islamabad's legal district to protest. "We can't digest it."

In his emergency declaration, Musharraf, a key U.S. ally against al-Qaida and the Taliban, accused the judiciary of hindering his government in fighting terrorism. He has also said the emergency was necessary to maintain political stability and preserve progress toward restoring full democracy.

The common view in Pakistan, however, is that it was a bald attempt to prolong his eight-year rule.

Political scientist Rasul Bakhsh Rais said the judiciary and lawyers, two main pillars of Pakistan's fragile civil society and historically at the forefront of political movements, sense that a line has been crossed that could end any hope for constitutional rule in the future.

"They feel if Musharraf has his own way and is able to restructure the system according to his whims, that is the end of Pakistan as a progressive and moderate country and the state will never be able to rehabilitate itself," said Rais, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Police have squashed the lawyers' protests, often brutally, and the legal system has been brought to a virtual standstill. Only 50 of Pakistan's 95 senior judges have agreed to take the oath under Musharraf's "provisional" constitution.

In the capital, criminal and civil courts were empty Thursday. Hundreds of lawyers have refused to appear before judges who have been sworn in since the emergency. Advocates' chambers remain empty, letter writers idle at their desks and court clerks just chat and drink tea.

Yet the bar and judiciary have a mixed record in Pakistan.

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