The present judicial crisis, if not resolved soon, could deteriorate and cause irreparable damage to constitutional order in Pakistan. Government must address the fundamental causes of this crisis and to reinstate an original democratic principle that is pivotal for the rule of law in Pakistan - the independence of the judiciary.
It was a bright sunny day of Friday 9th of March, 2007 only nine days after US vice president Dick Cheney visit to Pakistan, when President General Pervez Musharruf in his uniform called upon the country’s top judge Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to Army House (not to President House) and asked him to tender his resignation showing his antagonistic supremacy, the CJP ignored the offer. Chief Justice’s refusal to surrender was unprecedented in the legal annals of the World. Chief Justice of Pakistan was held in Army House for nearly five hours with few other military high-ups. During those five hours, in the absence of the next senior most judge, Justice Rana Bhagwandas, who was abroad, and with undue haste, the next senior most judge, Justice Javed Iqbal, was sworn in as Acting Chief Justice (ACJ). To facilitate this swearing in and the subsequent Supreme Judicial Councils (SJC) meeting, the Chief Justices of Sindh and Punjab were specially flown to Islamabad and reference against Chief Justice was filed and referred to SJC by the President under Article 209 of the Constitution. Remember no Chief Justice has ever refused to resign when called upon to do so by the Executive.
The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was, “Suspended” right after his refusal to leave his office, on the charges of abusing his powers. The fascinating and attention grabbing fact in this regard is that the allegations have been put forward by a ruler who is globally known for his notorious practice of abusing power and exploiting his authority. Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was sworn in the office of Chief Justice of Pakistan in June, 2005 and gained the national reputation because of those cases in which he passed the verdict against the spirit of government of Pakistan. These rulings became undesirable to the rulers and resulted to his suspension.
While reading the charge sheet against the ousted Chief Justice - most of the allegations are completely untrue and childish. So, simply put, there are no double standards here in supporting the CJ - cause the charges are completely trumped up to kick him out. For example, he is accused that he is only allowed one official car. That is an absolute falsehood - so are the accusation about his protocol - once again, that is completely fabricated. The only thing which holds any water is the charges pertaining to his son, Dr. Arsalan, He was given undue favors, and it remains to be determined how many were given just because that’s how the system works, or the pressure the CJ applied. The CJ has been proven of no crime, yet has been illegally kicked out of his job. That’s the real deal here - the abuse of power by Musharraf.
The irony is hard to miss - the same judge, who took a fresh oath of office under a military ruler when several of his colleagues resigned in protest, is now the face of a movement against the President. While one of suspended Chief Justice’s legal counsels, Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahson says, CJP took that oath for the salvation of judiciary.
Government officials say that several people have filed complaints with the president accusing Mr Chaudhry of misusing his office and receiving favors. In particular, he is alleged to have procured a top police job for his son. But critics say that concerns about corruption in high places are not an issue with the present government. They pointed out that there are more serious charges - such as financial embezzlement and property fraud - against other top judges. They also pointed to the federal cabinet, many of whose members had corruption cases pending against them in the National Accountability Bureau until they decided to join the government. The chief justice's supporters say that the real reason he has been singled out is because of his past performance, which created misgivings in official circles about his likely role in the coming legal battles ahead of national elections, due later this year.
This is where the problem lies. The chief justice was known for his ‘independence of mind’. Even when other institutions in Pakistan rubber stamped government decisions, he had taken opposing views on some crucial issues. The judge took a strong line against the extra judicial arrests made by General Musharraf’s secret services at the behest of the US. It was also reported that Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry told trainee military officers in February that, in his opinion, General Musharraf could not continue as army chief beyond his present term as president. These incidents and others seemed to incense the dictator and he decided to remove the Judge as he was seen as an obstacle to his plans to stay in uniform and in power. While talking to BBC, General termed his uniform as ‘my second skin’ and expressing his inability to taking it off, clearly indicates his intentions.
The suspension of CJP has literally polarized the country into two camps. Those favoring the sacking of Chief Justice are from pro-Musharruf’s regime while opposition is backing Chief Justice’s decision not to give up against the General. Now the clash between the legal community and the executive has been transformed into the shape of a national movement for democracy as the Chief Justice has been demanding an end to dictatorship and restoration of democracy.
Legal representatives and opposition parties saw it as an attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary. They vehemently criticized the suspension of Chief Justice of Pakistan. Gen Musharruf wanted Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry out of the way because he was seen as an obstacle to his plans to remain army chief while simultaneously occupying the presidency, majority of them retorted. For weeks the lawyers protested under the burning sun on Constitution Avenue, outside Supreme Court of Pakistan building in Islamabad, demanding the reinstatement of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. “The Chief Justice is seeking justice himself” proclaimed one of many banners.
On 13 March, the Chief Justice of Pakistan was manhandled by the police, to the extent that the police reportedly tore his coat, shoved his wife aside, pulled his hair and tried to force him into a police car. The Supreme Court took suo moto notice of the incident and has called into contempt the Inspector General of Police and the Chief Commissioner of Islamabad, among others. Nevertheless, the question put to the Mission was: If the Chief Justice could be treated in this manner, what could the general public expect from the administration?
The movement has developed from nowhere to everywhere. Soon after small scale demonstrations against the General’s effort "to tame” the judiciary became huge protests - attended by almost all opposition parties - against military rule. A fraternity of lawyers has regularly protested - defying security restrictions and barbed wire barricades - in all the big cities of the country. Political parties soon organized themselves and conducted their own rallies. Party workers, politicians, fundamentalists, human rights activists, tribesmen, media personnel and large gathering from civil society assembled to make a unity- of a common purpose and for a common cause. However, it was lawyer’s community who remained under the sun-light as well as in the lime-light. Someone called it a “black coat revolt” is too early to say. Most commentators agree that these protests represent the most serious threat to President Musharraf since he seized power in a military coup in 1999.
The show of support by the legal profession of Pakistan in defence of judicial independence is unprecedented and involves almost all the legal profession. The opposition political parties have also joined the legal profession in solidarity. Some quarters in the Government view this as the legal profession politicizing the issue. The demonstrations, in all the provinces, indicate that other sections of society are joining in the show of solidarity.
The Government, regrettably, is now mobilizing members of the public to demonstrate on the street in support of the President, to counter the wide support shown for the Chief Justice. This sort of public show of strength by the Government is an inappropriate and ineffective way to resolve the current crisis. This was seen clearly in the demonstrations of 24 April.
The peak of this agitation was on 14th May 2007. For the first time since General Musharraf took over the power in October 1999, whole of Pakistan shut down. It was the first political strike in seven years. It was also the first political action that was not initiated by the religious fundamentalist forces.
On a demonstration of 6th of May in Lahore, Punjab wrote a new chapter in its history. It was a night to remember-tens of thousands of people across Punjab flooded on the roads of Lahore from Mall to Shahdara to welcome the suspended Chief of Justice. It took the Chief Justice of Pakistan 26 hours to make his entrance in the city of Lahore from the capital city of Islamabad. CJP Chaudhry Muhammad Iftikhar went inside the LHC building to address the lawyers. His speech was precise with the theme that dictatorship which ignore the rule of law face "destruction".
No one in Pakistan, even from a General’s cabinet members/ advisors would have thought of a mass movement erupting in the near future with the potential to overthrow this regime. He had the illusion that nothing would happen and business as usual would go on. He had done it in the past successfully. But this time, General’s general notion proved way off beam.
The 12th May saw some of the worst episode of direct carnage of innocent citizens and political activists from different opposition parties in Karachi. All the roads linked to Shahrai Faisal, the main road to airport were blocked by huge containers and trucks. The purpose was to stop people coming to the main road. A private TV channel, Aaj, tried to show the firing by the gangsters. So the semi-fascist groups when fired at the TV channel building for over six hours. The local police and rangers had given a free hand to “deal” with the opposition. The chief justice was blocked at the Karachi airport alongside with 25 advocates. They were held for nine hours at the airport. The state authorities wanted him to go by helicopter to Sindh High Court building to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association. This was to avoid the reception of the people outside on the main roads. He refused to go by chopper.
As they stopped the chief justice at the airport, the private army of the MQM opened fire on all those who came in processions to receive and welcome him. Thus a firing drama lasted for over 14 hours, resulting in the deaths of over 40 by midnight. The same night on 12th May, the conservative Muslim League Q had planned a “mass” rally in Islamabad in support of the sacking of chief justice. This rally was planned weeks earlier to counter the growing sympathy for the chief justice.
All went against the regime. Their rally in Islamabad was a failure. Their strategy to stop the reception of chief justice resulted in bloodshed. They lost their support among the middle class, the traditional support for the military regime and MQM. The representatives of over 480 markets of Lahore announced, and acted upon, the call for a shut-down strike on 12th May. It was mainly announced by former supporters of the Musharraff government.
Now the worst case scenario for President Musharraf would be for him to relinquish some or all of his powers as a result of the continuing protests. While that seems unlikely at the moment, opposition parties appear to be growing ever more confident as they have already called for his removal from the presidency and his removal as army chief. Can Washington extend its help to save Musharruf’s regime?
"It is a defining moment," said Imran Khan, a living legend of cricket turned politician. "The chief justice was supposed to uphold not only the rights of individual citizens but also of institutions and the Constitution. When the state cannot protect his rights, how can it protect other individuals' rights?
Edmund Burke once said, “In politics there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. In the last few years, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - the two arch rivals - have come together under one umbrella, can they be united to make a political alliance? Or is Pakistan peoples Party (PPP) going to take shelter under military umbrella? To make things worse for Musharraf, Bhutto has categorically said that she can't even think of a deal with the military government, thus ending speculation of a possible coalition between Musharraf and PPP.
Meanwhile, the people of Pakistan will continue to suffer because of poor governance, growing insolvency and attrition of hope for a better future? A seemingly endless punishment for the sins of their rulers. Allow me to quote a poetic line from Munir Niazi to wrap up this piece of writing, he says, “Jurm Adam Nay Kia Aor Nasl-e-Adam ko Saza, Kaat-ta Hoon Zindagi Bhar Meinay Jo Boya Nahi”.
How and when Musharraf will step down, who will take over, will it be another general to hold general elections or a transitional government of some alliances? These are some of the commonly heard questions. One thing is absolute sure that Musharraf is weaker to an extent never seen before. He can not last long as he had planned. Many have started counting the days. However, the course of action that the PPP will take in next few months, will define the future of country’s politics.
The writer is a freelance columnist and a political analyst from Islamabad.
Published in daily The Frontier Post, 29 may, 2007
MUHAMMAD MAHTAB BASHIR
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