Thousands of lawyers took to the streets of Pakistan last week to demand the reinstatement of senior judges sacked last year.
In a key test of the rule of law under the country’s new government, lawyers, along with civil society activists and some political parties, converged on the city of Multan on Tuesday for the official start of a national protest dubbed ‘the long march’ (TheLawyer.com, 10 June).
They were joined by deposed chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry before moving on to the capital Islamabad on Friday (13 June).
At pre-march rallies in Karachi on Monday, protesters chanted slogans against President Pervez Musharraf, who dismissed the judges.
Sabihuddin Ahmed, the deposed chief justice of the high court in the southern province of Sindh, told marchers the protest was a “historic day”, adding: “Judges have come out to protect the country and the constitution.”
The protests have been backed by the Law Society of England and Wales (TheLawyer.com, 11 June). Law Society president Andrew Holroyd said: “We in England and Wales stand strongly behind Pakistan’s lawyers as they strive to support human rights and uphold the rule of law in their country.” The protest comes after Musharraf dismissed dozens of judges when he imposed emergency rule in November 2007. At the time he faced numerous legal challenges to his presidency.
Lawyers and political opponents had already been infuriated by Musharraf’s attempts to sack Chaudhry in March 2007.
Chaudhry has been a critic of Musharraf since being appointed in 2005. His actions in office include launching inquiries into the disappearance of suspected insurgents in the country’s Balochistan province, outlawing child marriage, and preventing the privatisation of a major steel company due to irregularities in the bidding process.
Lawyers clashed with police in the streets at the time of Chaudhry’s sacking, which was widely seen as an attack on judicial independence (The Lawyer, 16 April 2007). The protests eventually led to Chaudhry’s reinstatement last year (The Lawyer, 6 August 2007).
The Law Society’s campaign to bring the rule of law to Pakistan was reignited more than a year ago, with The Lawyer revealing that the representative body had been lobbying Musharraf to push for the independence of Pakistan’s judiciary (The Lawyer, 28 May 2007).
Holroyd, who led hundreds of people in a protest outside Pakistan’s London embassy, launched a petition to condemn the situation in Pakistan (The Lawyer, 19 November 2007), while in January this year the Law Society held crisis talks in an attempt to have imprisoned lawyers and judges freed (The Lawyer, 23 January).
Following elections in February this year that saw the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) loyal to Musharraf all but swept away by the opposition PPP and PML(N) parties, political rivals hope to impeach the president.
To do this, the PPP and PML(N) need to pass a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, which they cannot muster.
An alternative way to oust Musharraf would be to restore the sacked judges by an executive order, assuming that the judges would go on to rule that his presidential election was unconstitutional.
Rights fight’s leading light
When Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November 2007, a warrant was issued for the arrest of human rights campaigner Hina Jilani.
Jilani is Pakistan’s best-known campaigner for victims of domestic, fundamentalist and feudalistic violence, and of so-called ‘honour killings’. In 1980, she co-founded Pakistan’s first all-female legal practice with her sister Asma Jahangir, and on 12 February 1983 the two women began a 20-day prison sentence for protesting on behalf of a young blind girl named Safia Bibi who had been raped but was in jail for adultery.
The date has since been immortalised as Pakistan Women’s Day, when every year women in Pakistan come out onto the streets to commemorate the beginning of the struggle.
In the context of current events, Jilani has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the lawyers and judges at risk, holding a press conference at the Law Society of England and Wales in November 2008, as well as demonstrations at Downing Street.
The Law Society has backed the campaign, launching a petition to condemn the lawlessness in Pakistan in November, while in January it held crisis talks in an attempt to have imprisoned lawyers and judges freed.
– March 2007: President Pervez Musharraf sacks the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry – only to see lawyers and the judiciary band together to insist on his reinstatement.
– Musharraf declares a state of emergency in Pakistan, imposing martial law. Chaudhry threatens to block him from a second term as president, and all the troublesome judges are sacked.
– December 2007: Musharraf is accused of complicity in the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, as she had accused the president of plotting against her previously.
– February 2008: The anti-Musharraf mood sweeps the PPP to power in the parliamentary elections as the lead party in a coalition government – all but wiping out the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), the party loyal to Musharraf.
– June 2008: Lawyers demanding the reinstatement of the sacked judges and the sacking of Musharraf start a ‘long march’ to converge on parliament in Islamabad and the president’s temporary army house in nearby Rawalpindi.