In 2007, Gen Pervez Musharraf decided the law was inconvenient to his authoritarian whims, so he infamously attacked the judiciary, suspending and detaining the Chief Justice. The dictator’s action was seen by all as a bald faced attempt to crush dissent and rule with an iron fist. Rather than solidify his regime, though, his overreach gave birth to the Lawyer’s Movement, also known as the ‘Movement for the Rule of Law’, and the historic long march from Lahore to Islamabad two years later demanding reinstatement of the Chief Justice.
The movement gained international attention for Pakistan, and international acclaim for the lawyers who were seen as the vanguard of justice and integrity in Pakistan.
The movement to restore Chaudhry, and the constitution, and the rule of law, held out the hope of disinterring the liberal tradition. In a country where politics taint everything, many of the lawyers were independents. Pakistan’s bar associations were among the few bodies that had consistently selected their leaders through democratic elections; and the country’s 116,000 lawyers had chosen through their bar associations to commit themselves to protest. Ahsan was not then an officeholder, but he worked alongside the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Munir Malik, and Tariq Mahmood, a former judge who had quit rather than accept Musharraf’s blatant rigging of the 2002 referendum. Years of disappointment had made Pakistanis cynical about politics and public life, but these were men whose integrity put them beyond question.
Today, the lawyers’ reputation has become as black as their coats.
After Mumtaz Qadri shot Salmaan Taseer in the back, a murder he freely admits to, lawyers were seen showering the killer with roses, a shameful about-face that was not missed by the international press.
Instead, before his court appearances, the lawyers showered rose petals over the confessed killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of an elite police group who had been assigned to guard the governor, but who instead turned his gun on him. They have now enthusiastically taken up his defense.
It may seem a stark turnabout for a group that just a few years ago looked like the vanguard of a democracy movement. They waged months of protests in 2007 and 2008 to challenge Pakistan’s military dictator after he unlawfully removed the chief justice.
Whether or not any particular lawyer believed that Qadri’s actions were defensible under the law, the way that the lawyers have behaved has shown that, as Saroop Ijaz observed, “this particular case is anything but ordinary”.
What has made the case even more extraordinary were reports this week that the judge who presided over the case, Pervez Ali Shah, has fled to Saudi Arabia after receiving death threats.
“The death threats have forced Judge Pervez Ali Shah to leave the country along with his family for Saudi Arabia,” Advocate Saiful Malook, the special prosecutor in the Qadri case, told Dawn on Monday.
He said sensing the gravity of the situation the government had arranged the lodging of Mr Shah and members of his family abroad. “Although security was provided to the judge and his family members, the government on the reports of law-enforcement agencies opted for sending him abroad,” he said.
There were also unconfirmed reports that extremist elements in religious parties had fixed the head money for the judge. “There were such reports but there was a potential threat to the life of Mr Shah and his family members,” he said.
And where are the lawyers now as one of their own is once again forced from the bench by forces that refuse to accept the rule of law when it is inconvenient to their agenda? Where is the long march demanding the return of Judge Pervez Shah and defence of an independent judiciary?
While it is true that some of the leaders of the lawyer’s movement such as Asma Jahangir have remained true to their principles and demanded that the rule of law not be sacrificed to the rule of mobs, these few souls have been abandoned by their colleagues whose silence in the face of the new authoritarian threat is the public death notice for the lawyer’s movement.