Pakistan Judiciary: A misjudged reaction to reform

The law’s in their own hands

Since General Pervez Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup nearly eight years ago, the public mood has wavered often between a desire for stability and a desire for constitutional governance. And just as often, Musharraf has wavered between political heavy-handedness and sporadic attempts at reform. The most recent head of the Pakistani judiciary, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, took the reform cues to heart over two year stint, issuing important rulings on privitasation, religious policing, and “disappearances” traced to the government itself. For Musharraf, the latter was a reform too far – he accused Chaudhry of misconduct and demanded his resignation on March 9th. Chaudhry refused and was placed under house arrest.

Though many following the scandal involving the dismissal of US attorneys may consider this rather uneventful, the legions of suit-and-tied lawyers taking to the streets – rocks in hand – proved otherwise (you were expecting madrassa students, perhaps?). The protests included a boycott of all court proceedings and demands for Musharraf’s resignation. Reprisals included scores of injuries, attacks on legal institutions and the shuttering of TV stations. Judges resigned and thousands have been arrested. As with President George Bush in the US, Musharraf has claimed a sort of executive priviledge, citing the stability of the country for extraconstitutional measures.

Though he has gamely stated no intention to call a state of emergency or delay elections (and says he has no personal differences with Chaudaray), he appears in this case to have overplayed his hand. A leaked list of accusations was made public on March 19th and included such items as using a 3.0 litre Mercedes instead of a 1.7 litre-engined car and “asking for more perks than he was entitled to.” An interview with Musharraf, where he blamed “low-level officials” was found by Dawn newspaper to be “not very convincing.” Though a constitutional amendment states that he give up his military uniform this year, Musharraf has stated – cryptically – that he will only follow the constitution (which was changed the last time he was required to leave his post). It is the holding of his military post – shades of the disastrous military dictatorships of Pakistan’s past – that have ordinary Pakistanis agitated.

Choudhary, in fact, was due to rule on the constitutionality of Musharraf’s military post and his eligibility for the next general election. In the meantime, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, where Chaudhry once reigned, is scheduled to hear the charges again on April 3rd. Chaudary has insisted he will not resign and the bar association and opposition parties (those linked to former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif) plan to continue their protests. “The Government is trying to prolong the proceedings of the Chief Justice’s case to weaken the lawyers struggle,” said Sindh High Court Bar Association’s President Abrar Hasan. “But, the government will not succeed in its designs and our struggle will continue.”

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of He is based in London, England.

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