By Sonya Fatah
Pakistani lawyers and activists stood in the line of fire to defend the rule of law against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. In spite of mass arrests and persecution, they have called the world?s attention to the urgent human rights situation in Pakistan.
When President Gen. Pervez Musharraf asked Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhury to resign on March 9, 2007, he turned an erstwhile obscure man into a people's hero overnight. Choudhury, the chief justice of Pakistan's supreme court, had drawn Musharraf's ire by mounting pointed judicial challenges to the military establishment, and the president erroneously calculated that sacking the justice would be politically expedient.
Instead, Musharraf's incursion into Pakistan's judiciary "and Choudhury's refusal to resign" ignited an accumulation of discontent that had been building in the hushed courtrooms and august law firms of Pakistan for years. Since Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, he has retained nearly absolute control over the government's executive and legislative bodies. The president's actions in recent years, including a succession of constitutional amendments, the questionable sale of national assets and policies that led to the "disappearances" of hundreds of citizens, incensed lawyers and judges in Pakistan who have been striving to establish the rule of law in a famously unwieldy political landscape.
The consequences of Choudhury's defiance played out dramatically before the entire nation: intelligence officers entered the judge's home, and police barricaded his property and roughed him up on the streets while television cameras rolled. That very day, thousands of nattily dressed lawyers broke their agitated silence and poured into the streets of Pakistan in an unprecedented mass protest. Choudhury's challenge to Musharraf's policies fortified the conviction among lawyers and activists that the courts' technically the only independent arm of Pakistan's government-- could stand up to poor governance and state corruption. Overnight, Choudhury become a symbol around which an entire country could rally.
While technically a parliamentary democracy, Pakistan has been ruled by the military for half of the sixty years since its founding. Supported by a nexus of bureaucratic, feudal and business elites, the military has grown into the most powerful institution in Pakistan. When Musharraf seized power, he presented himself as the father of "enlightened moderation" and economic opportunity. Like other military rulers before him, however, he has instead strong-armed national cohesion out of a fractured, mostly poor population of 160 million. U.S. support, including aid totaling nearly $10 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, has helped fund his increasingly authoritarian tactics.
Spurred by Choudhury's defiance, lawyers and activists articulated the language of protest against Musharraf's transgressions "both on the streets and in the media" throughout the latter half of 2007. In doing so, they braved arbitrary arrest, police beatings and the looming threat of imprisonment.
At the forefront of the movement was Munir Malik, then president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Malik, part of the country's educated and professional elite, did not have the feudal links or military background necessary to challenge the country's power structures on his own. Standing alongside thousands of other lawyers, however, he could publicly champion Choudhury's judicial activism and his commitment to ordinary Pakistanis. Malik appeared on talk shows and penned newspaper editorials --in both English and Urdu--to express his outrage at Musharraf's blatant constitutional violations and the heavy-handed manner in which the military suppressed the voices of ordinary citizens.
As the chief justice of Pakistan's highest court, Choudhury "took on issues no one [else] would have touched," said Malik. He passed an order for the liberation of bonded laborers, for example, and challenged the legality of the government's sale of national assets. At the top of the judge's list: the "disappearances" of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Pakistani citizens the government claims are terror suspects; among the missing are students, businessmen and civil servants. A large number have "disappeared" from the province of Balochistan, where ethnic separatism has bubbled in response to the central government's aggressive exploitation of the region's natural resources. Others across the country have been swept up for their alleged support or knowledge of al-Qaeda and Taliban activities. Taken to intelligence sites and reportedly tortured, most of the missing have not been seen since they were abducted. Their families have filed petition after petition in the courts, maintaining the innocence of their relatives and pleading for news.
Shortly before he was dethroned, the chief justice, who had become increasingly assertive about his judicial independence, had begun to examine the role of intelligence agencies in these disappearances. Choudhury boosted the cause of anxious relatives by demanding that the government and intelligence agencies present some 500 missing persons in court to try them lawfully, and several high-profile lawyers took up the cases. Amina Masood Janjua, 35, had been awaiting just such an opportunity to find out what had happened to her husband, Masood Janjua, who was abducted from a station in Rawalpindi in 2005. She was elated when she finally got a date for a missing persons hearing.
But on Nov. 3, Musharraf declared a national state of emergency that was widely interpreted as a move to preempt both the missing persons hearings and a Supreme Court judgment on the legitimacy of his candidacy in the February presidential elections. He suspended the constitution and the Supreme Court, bringing the missing persons proceedings to a grinding halt.
The desolate families of the missing persons" were counting each day for the return of their loved ones," Janjua lamented. "Once again, their high hopes are shattered." For two years after her husband's 2005 "disappearance," Janjua stood vigil outside the Supreme Court holding a portrait of her husband, a tour operator. She soon learned she was not alone. Other families began to reach out to her, so Janjua started a support group. She recorded in her diary the details of some 500 men who had "disappeared," many of them taken to illegal detention centers both inside and out of Pakistan, and organized demonstrations. Although Janjua has still not learned what happened to her husband, she has put a face on Choudhury's judicial initiative and helped build a movement of truth seekers.
As public displays of opposition grew increasingly restive, drawing nationwide scrutiny to the deep contradictions in Musharraf's policies, the authorities turned their attention to the protest movement. It was dangerous, unwelcome attention. In May 2007, after authorities detained Choudhury at the Karachi airport to prevent him from addressing the Sindh Bar Association, the ensuing demonstration by lawyers descended into mayhem. Police surrounded demonstrators as they tried to march down Karachi's main street, and armed thugs from a provincial political party allied with Musharraf were caught on video inciting violence and assaulting protesters. Eyewitnesses said police officers stood by and watched the fighting escalate, and at least 41 people were killed as a result. After AAJ TV, one of Pakistan's independent television channels, aired the footage, its offices were attacked.
The crackdown only hardened the resolve of the movement's leaders to expose the government's failings, which in turn ratcheted up the persecution. "Naturally, there was continued harassment," said Noor Naz Agha, a leading human rights activist. She reported threatening phone calls and police visits to her office and home.
When Musharraf imposed the November state of emergency, he signaled the hard limits of his tolerance for dissent. He instituted a media blackout, expelled three foreign journalists and gave orders for the arbitrary arrest of anyone who might challenge the legitimacy of his action. Agha was picked up and carted off to jail, one of a tiny handful of women to be locked up. "It's hard to believe," she wrote in an op-ed published in the United Kingdom in The Guardian. "As a lawyer and a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I have visited many prisoners over the years. Now I am one of them."
The police went after Janjua too, humiliating her teenage son during a protest by stripping him of his pants. But they came down hardest on Malik, whose voice carried weight with both the elite and the masses amid the political turmoil. Immediately after the state of emergency was declared, Malik was taken to Adiala Jail in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, a facility crammed with about 6,500 prisoners despite its holding capacity of 1,700. After a few nights, he was woken by guards and told he was being transferred to Attock Fort, the notorious military prison primarily used by Pakistan's intelligence agencies.
"It was biting cold," said Malik of the four-hour journey that followed. But he believes the separation was really a scare tactic meant to break his resolve. In the end, he was taken to a local jail where he was strip-searched, given a uniform and escorted to a cell reserved for those who violate prison rules. There, in a space that measured roughly six by five feet, he lay on a slab on the floor, trying to calculate his next steps. There were small comforts. In the absence of intelligence agents, jail staff accorded him respect. "They would whisper in my ear when others were out of earshot that they were with us," Malik recalled, "not the government."
The collective realization that vast amounts of U.S. aid has served only to line the coffers of Pakistan's military apparatus, with no benefit to ordinary Pakistanis, has caused Musharraf's domestic standing to plummet. So have the government's military "solutions" in Balochistan. Bolstered by U.S. military support, including equipment meant to support anti-terror operations, the incursions there have killed hundreds of people and stoked the volatile problem of ethnic separatism.
By mid-2007, mainstream public opinion had turned to deep suspicion that Musharraf was using U.S. financial-- and political--support to eliminate opposition of any stripe. The botched outcome of Operation Sunrise, a military strike in July against the increasingly militant mullahs of the Islamabad-based Red Mosque, outraged Pakistanis of every social strata. Hundreds of young girls, who lived at the madrassa inside the sprawling campus in the middle of a posh Islamabad neighborhood, were killed during the siege. The government defended the shedding of blood and the loss of life in the capital, claiming that it had tried all other avenues of negotiation with the increasingly aggressive mullahs who ran the madrassa. But most believed that the final death count was a reflection of Musharraf's confused handling of the Islamist problem in Pakistan? and an indication that the country's military had turned against its own people to wage an American war.
Although Musharraf announced the nominal end to the 2007 state of emergency on Dec. 15, the movement kept up the fight to prevent the "Old Raj" --as the president is known--from tightening his grip on power. Lawyers began a strike during the national emergency and refused to bring cases. Demonstrations continued. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan secured the release of about 50 detainees. And all the while, the lawyers and activists stood steadfastly behind the chief justice, who managed to communicate with his supporters via smuggled messages while under house arrest.
At press time, opposition parties had won a large majority in the Feb. 18 Parliamentary elections; they will form the new government. The movement was urging Pakistan?s new parliament to take urgent steps to reinstate Choudhury and the judges of the superior judiciary, who were punitively and unconstitutionally dismissed in 2007, and restore the Constitution to its preemergency state.
The lawyers and activists remain committed to do whatever it takes to defend the rule of law. "This is a fight we will take to the end. I am willing to make that choice. I don't care what it takes," said Malik. "They will either silence us, or it is them--the repressive forces--that will have to go."ai
Sonya Fatah is a freelance journalist based in South Asia. Her work has been published in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Fortune and the Columbia Journalism Review.