The Revolt of the Lawyers

Why judges, too, are joining the challenge to General Musharraf


Pakistan's lawyers are leading protests against emergency rule.

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KARACHI, PAKISTAN—With riot police massing outside the Sindh High Court building, lawyers and former judges inside rise to their feet, one by one, and make a financial pledge. The Sindh High Court Bar Association is raising money for a fund to support families of colleagues imprisoned for protesting the November 3 declaration of emergency rule by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. "This is the time we have to prove ourselves," says Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court justice who ran against Musharraf in the October presidential election. "Stand fast and don't lose courage." Like all the others here, he somehow managed to sneak past the squads of police trying to thwart the gathering.

During the two-hour event, the group collected 1.4 million rupees—nearly $23,000—that will be distributed to the families of the detained lawyers. "The situation is getting more difficult for lawyers with each passing day," says Munir Rahman, the secretary of the bar association and organizer of the fundraiser. Minutes later, he is arrested and hauled away. "We have orders from higher authorities," one police officer tells him.

These are tumultuous times for Pakistan's legal community, which has assumed a new and rather unfamiliar role as the driving force behind the opposition to Musharraf's strong-arm tactics. Images of protesting lawyers, clad in dark suits and ties, being tear-gassed and beaten with batons, have come to symbolize the most serious challenge yet to Musharraf's eight-year, military-backed rule. "It is somewhat unique in the world where you have the legal profession become the cutting edge," says Walter Andersen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "They are often not the most revolutionary types."

Legal culture. The political crisis was sparked back in March when Musharraf tried to sack Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of the country's Supreme Court. Chaudhry was reinstated after the court stood up to Musharraf, but in his emergency declaration, the Pakistani leader suspended the Constitution, shuttered independent TV stations, and sacked Chaudhry again, along with a majority of the court's other judges.

Pakistan, with its British colonial heritage, has long boasted a vibrant legal culture. But the country's judges have not, until recently, been known for their independence, and the current revolt marks an ambitious bid to establish a truly autonomous judiciary. "There is no doubt that the top judiciary has always stood alongside the military dictators during the last 60 years," says Ismat Mehdi, a lawyer who lectures at the Sindh Muslim Law College. "But this time, the judges united and took such a bold stand because the establishment challenged and maligned the judiciary as an institution rather than some individual judges."

The protesting judges say they are pleased with the reception they are getting. "I am proud of our decision," says Zahid Sharif, who as a senior judge in the Lahore High Court refused to swear a new oath of office under emergency rule. "I never got such honor and respect, which I am getting nowadays." Students in several cities have set up "justice corners," where people have been leaving bouquets of flowers as a sign of solidarity with the ousted judges.

The support is, in part, a reflection of just how much opposition has been building to Musharraf's rule. "They did crystallize a lot of the resentment against the regime, which people probably felt they couldn't express purely by political means," says Frederic Grare, a Pakistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

So far, most lawyers and many judges are standing firm, despite the threat of prison and financial hardship. "Treason cases are being lodged against protesting lawyers and political activists," says Rahman. "The police are treating us like criminals." Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and Parliament member who was arrested on the day of Musharraf's decree, has reported to colleagues that he is imprisoned in a cell equipped with a powerful light that never turns off.