Lawyers Spearhead Popular Movement for Democracy in Pakistan

March 23, 2007

Over the last week, a mobilization among lawyers in Pakistan has appeared at the vanguard of an emerging movement for democracy, in the wake of a crisis that erupted on March 9 when President Parvez Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry of the Supreme Court, citing unspecified charges of "misconduct and misuse of authority."  While the Chief Justice was described by human rights lawyer Asma Jilani Jahangir as “no role model for the bar…his act of defiance in refusing to resign in the face of executive oppression has made him an instant hero.”

In the months before his suspension, Chaudhry – who has been criticized for allegedly using his position to help his son get a government job – had raised concerns about so-called “missing persons” characterized by some as victims of government abduction.  Reuters also notes that "The move to sack Chaudhry led to suspicion Musharraf feared the independent-minded judge would block any attempt by the president to keep the post of army chief, which he is due to give up this year. Chaudhry might also have been called to rule on the timing of the next presidential election."  Hamid Mir, Editor-in-Chief of a television station raided by police forces earlier this month, suggested that "Musharraf would like to be re-elected, but justice Choudhary would not have allowed him to be re-elected from the same parliament."

This Tuesday, one of the country's three attorneys-general resigned, claiming that "in the current judicial crisis, it was very difficult for me to perform my duties."  In the days that followed, hundreds of lawyers took to the streets of Islamabad and Lahore in outrage, with one opposition leader declaring that "Our struggle will continue until the dictatorship ends.” On Saturday, over 40 law offices were raided and "ransacked," according to The Washington Post, which also reported that 100 lawyers were injured by weapons including "iron-tipped batons" when a demonstration was pre-emptively "assaulted" by police that included "tear gas, rocks and baton charges."  Nursing injuries caused by baton strikes, 39 year-old Counselor Khurram Latif Khosa said, "We were not armed. Our weapons were words -- that's all."  His father, who was also a lawyer participating in the demonstrations, suffered a gash on his forehead requiring six stitches.

On Friday, President Parvez Musharraf argued that the crisis "should not be made a law and order or political issue," and that instead "will be resolved only though legal and constitutional means." Musharrah included a particular "appeal to all lawyers that they should let this constitutional and legal process be completed."

Essentially under house arrest since March 9, Chief Justice Chaudhry publicly responded to the crisis for the first time today, claiming in the newspaper DAWN that he was innocent of all charges and arguing that the hearing on the accusations against him should be open, rather than closed, to the public. He said, "I want the public to know of the charges as well as of my defence."

Photo credit: K.m. Chaudary -- Associated Press