Pakistani Lawyer At Helm of Change

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 11, 2008

Leading a motorcade marathon from Islamabad to Lahore in May last year, lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan threaded his way gingerly through throngs of impassioned Pakistanis lining the road in the 110-degree heat. At the climax of his campaign to get the country's suspended Supreme Court chief justice reinstated, it wouldn't do to topple a supporter and risk stalling the building momentum of public fervor.

The justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, was in the passenger seat as the crowds spurred Ahsan to stay awake at the wheel.

"Every minute, every inch, was covered live," the opposition activist exulted as he described how people clambered onto the roof and hood of his white Mitsubishi Pajero and showered it with petals during the 26-hour drive, normally a four- or five-hour trip. Ordinary Pakistanis from all walks of life joined in, he said, because "they embraced the fight for a new judiciary as a dream to correct all ills."

During a visit to Washington last month, Ahsan warned American legislators that instability and uncertainty in Pakistan could not be remedied until judges removed from their jobs when President Pervez Musharraf imposed military rule last November were reinstated. Chaudhry himself had been returned to the bench last July following the massive spring protests.

Ahsan was in Washington to address the annual meeting of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America. The combative lawyer also spoke to an overflow crowd at an event organized by Amnesty International.

"He is our big hope in our drive to support the rule of law," said Zaffar Iqbal, a physician with the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights. "Secular people want a fair system."

Ahsan, 62, has consistently opposed and agitated against military regimes, earlier under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and now against Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief Nov. 28. The soft-spoken lawyer has been jailed at least eight times, always reemerging to take on the same issues in the courts.

His mantra is that U.S. aid to Pakistan's military, along with American coddling of autocratic leaders to further regional political and security goals, has eroded civil liberties. Since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. assistance to Pakistan has topped $10 billion, most of it going to its army as part of the effort to flush out al-Qaeda from the border areas near Afghanistan.

Ahsan says that approach will be "to America's detriment, because terror cannot be fought without democracy, and democracy can't be sustained without an independent judiciary."

For him, that calls for deeds as well as words. His ability to fire up his black-robed colleagues last year to demonstrate in the streets against Musharraf's rule put him at the helm of a national movement for democratic change. The latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine ranked Ahsan fifth among the world's top 20 public intellectuals, alongside Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, chess grandmaster and democracy activist Garry Kasparov, Indian economist Amartya Sen and others.

A Cambridge-trained barrister, Ahsan gained fame, and a degree of notoriety, by taking on the defense of two controversial prime ministers after they were deposed by military coups. Most recently, his crusade for an independent judiciary has focused on Musharraf's Nov. 3 decision to dismiss 11 Supreme Court judges and place them under house arrest.

It was the second time Musharraf had unseated Chaudhry, whom Ahsan calls the only independent and untarnished chief justice in the country's history. Until Chaudhry introduced Pakistanis to the real meaning of habeas corpus and the supremacy of the law, he said, Pakistan had "always had a subservient, weak and pliant judiciary."

Chaudhry's first suspension was declared illegal last year after Ahsan represented him in the Supreme Court. The November move against the judiciary has not been fully reversed. The house arrest imposed on the 11 judges and their families ended in March, but neither they nor 50 provincial judges who also lost their jobs were reinstated.

Musharraf picked out those judges who were uncowed by him and detained them without charge, Ahsan said, "and the United States did not utter a whimper to express concern."

But in the halls of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill last month, Ahsan was greeted like a rock star. Politicians, staffers and a Pakistani American couple stopped him to shake hands and express respect, a member of his entourage said.

After meetings with Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Reps. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) and Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), Ahsan said the second-most-burning issue in Pakistan after the autonomy of the judicial system was the economy. "The economy is in shambles," he said. "There is galloping inflation, particularly food cost inflation, with oil prices more out of control than ever."

Still, he added: "An independent judiciary is the most significant element attracting foreign investment because it means contracts will be enforced. Developing countries have only rarely promised sanctity of contracts. These can only be ensured by a judiciary that is not subservient to the executive's whims."

Ahsan explains the facile shifts he has made throughout his career from opponent to defender and from defender to opponent as a matter of professional daring: "I thrive on challenge and I have done unorthodox things in the past." He said he came out with top results in a civil service exam as a young lawyer but declined to serve under a military government. He did, however, serve repeatedly as minister and senator.

Ahsan said he was "unsparing" in his opposition to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif but did not blink when asked to represent him after he was jailed by Musharraf.

"When he retained me as a lawyer, that to me was a great privilege," he said. "To have your opponent entrust and put his life and liberty in your hands . . . I think for a lawyer that is a very great thing." Ahsan also represented former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in a corruption scandal before she was killed.

In a reminder of his mass appeal, Ahsan masterminded a four-day nationwide protest last month, dubbed the Long March, that involved motorcades from four cities converging on Islamabad, the capital. Yet with his poker face and slow, even diction, Ahsan comes across as a pedant, not a revolutionary.

The lawyer poet, who has at times regaled crowds with Urdu verses, was dismissive when asked whether he wants to go down as Pakistan's Mohandas K. Gandhi, the ascetic Indian pacifist who stimulated the nationalist drive to dismantle British rule. "No," he said. "That is like my comparison to Martin Luther King. Their nonviolent marches led to violent ends. They were both killed."

"Of course, I could get killed, too," he said, shrugging. "If you get concerned about security, you get bunkered. And if you get bunkered, that's the end of the story."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company