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.

The nation's revered founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was one of the subcontinent's most famed lawyers. But Pakistan's top judges have often acted cravenly, endorsing military takeovers, and the legal system is widely perceived as corrupt and dysfunctional, and its lawyers untrustworthy.

Chaudhry's resolve in standing up to the military-led establishment has marked a sea change in public notions of how the judiciary could act as a check on the executive and defend citizens' rights.

"The past year has seen a revolution in Pakistan as the judiciary fought successfully for its independence and held the government to account," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

In one notable example, Chaudhry started pushing the government to disclose the whereabouts of 485 Pakistanis secretly detained by intelligence agencies on suspicion of involvement in terrorism or ethnic nationalist movements and held for months or years without charge.

So far, some 105 have been released _ often mysteriously dropped on highways or suddenly reappearing in police custody two or three years after disappearing. Musharraf accuses the court of freeing more than 60 terrorists.

"The chief justice was our hope and still is our hope," said Amina Masood Janjua, 42, who is still trying to trace her husband, businessman Masood Janjua, 47, who disappeared in December 2005. She believes he is in the custody of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence but has no idea what for.

"The chief justice was the one working for the public and the poor, and who for the first time in Pakistan was summoning people from the agencies to appear in court," she said.

Chaudhry's move to confront Pakistan's shadowy security apparatus was likely one reason why Musharraf sought to oust him. Chaudhry became the rallying point for mass rallies led by lawyers against military rule, and the court reinstated him months after Musharraf first removed him from office.

That buoyed the hopes of civil society activists that Pakistan was finally shifting toward open government.

The political opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, inspire less public confidence.

Both style themselves as fighters for democracy against dictatorship, but their records during a decade of volatile civilian rule between 1988 and 1999 were spotty. They were dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement that have sapped their support other than from among hardcore followers.

Rais said political parties in Pakistan have often been co-opted by the dominant military, and so the opposition remains divided and lacking popular support.

"Today political parties are quite disorganized and have single dominant leaders, so they have become little oligarchies of the elite," said Rais. "They do not have roots in society."

The legal community, by contrast, has a strong organizational structure with associations in every district of the country and its own source of income, he said.

While many of the top lawyers also have strong and varying political allegiances _ the key lawyer who represented Chaudhry and successfully had him reinstated in July was once a top Cabinet minister under Bhutto _ the legal community has remained largely united behind the defiant judge.

But Western allies who have opposed the Musharraf regime's emergency rule and the detentions of thousands of opposition activists and attorneys have not directly criticized his actions against the judiciary.

Lawyer Sayed Mazher Shiasi noted the silence and condemned it.

"Our whole nation is looking to them to come forward and rescue us from these trespassers," he said.

© 2007 The Associated Press