The events of the past week in Pakistan are enough to give any advocate of democracy, separation of powers, and civil liberties cause for great concern.
President Pervez Musharraf, facing Supreme Court review of the question of whether he may remain as both army chief and president, decided he would not wait for an adverse ruling, and declared a state of emergency Saturday, claiming it was related to threats of violence from terrorists and militant groups.
Musharraf suspended the constitution, fired several Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Ifitkhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and instructed security forces to arrest dissidents and protestors. The Pakistani cabinet is meeting to decide whether parliamentary elections, scheduled for January, will be delayed up to a year, drawing criticism from world leaders including President George W. Bush.
Musharraf still shows no inclination to give up his post as army chief. Independent domestic news stations were taken off the air.
In the midst of this chaos, the judiciary and community of lawyers in Pakistan have refused to stay silent, showing inspiring resolve in the face of their country’s slide toward authoritarianism. Lawyers have been prominent in the protesting mobs clashing with police, including a group of 1,000 lawyers in the city of Multan on Tuesday. Even before Musharraf’s most recent actions, lawyers were protesting his interference with the independence of the judiciary.
Almost all of us have had abstract classroom discussions about the subject. But how much do you believe in the independence of the judiciary? Would you go to jail for it? Would you take be struck by an armed police office for it?
The lawyers of Pakistan would. “We are determined that until there is freedom for the judges and the overturn of emergency rule, this war will continue,” said Anwar Shaheen, a lawyer in Lahore, to the Washington Post on Tuesday. “They can’t quiet us.”
Now, leaders say they will not rest until Musharraf resigns. We doubt their rights to assemble and protest will become any more meaningful, as this week’s protests were met with tear gas, batons, and thousands of arrests. But we urge them to press on, and it seems they have every intention of doing so. In Lahore, a lawyer-police struggle in front of the High Court building itself on Monday resulted in many injuries and several hundred arrests, but activists say they are planning yet bigger protests for later this week.
Showing strong leadership is ousted Chief Justice Chaudhry himself, now under house arrest since his firing and the firing of six of his fellow justices. Chaudry reached activist lawyers by cell phone earlier this week, telling them, according to the Associated Press, to “go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice. Don’t be afraid. God will help us, and the day will come when you’ll see the constitution supreme and no dictatorship for a long time.” Chaudhry had survived Musharraf’s first attempt to remove him from his post in March, and had previously taken up the issue of “forced disappearances” by intelligence agencies.
It is worth noting, as well, the breadth of practice of the lawyers who are marching in the street. The protesters are not a coalition of a few hardcore human rights lawyers, but instead represent the cross-spectrum of the Pakistani bar. Those arrested, the New York Times reported Wednesday, include some of the country’s top corporate lawyers, like Shahid Kardar.
This is a visceral reminder that lawyers serve as linchpins of law and justice no matter what side of the “v” they are on, and should be heartening for those of us who, sitting in Corporations or Secured Transactions, feel that we have mentally distanced ourselves from the “public interest” during our years in school.
The constitutional dramas of the United States today are on a scale much smaller than what is happening in Pakistan. No one truly fears President Bush will try to fire John Roberts, jail Nancy Pelosi, and put on General Petraeus’s uniform. Still, we continue to face crucial national questions of civil liberties, executive authority, war powers, surveillance, detention, and torture and interrogation in the context of combating terrorism. As dangerous a time as Pakistan is facing, we find the fight of judges and lawyers for the rule of law and the institutions we study in law school to be an inspiring example of the highest ideals of our profession in action. We hope we will never have to face a police baton to stand up for the independence of the courts, but we like to think that we would.