Friday, or Jumma as it is known to Muslims, is the holiest day of the week. It is usually a day of rest and reflection. On a Friday, 9 March 2007, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf told the country’s senior judge, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry of the Supreme Court, that he was being dismissed due to allegations of misconduct.
Little detail was made public by the Government. What information is known of the allegations came from an open letter from a noted pro-Government lawyer and television presenter, Naeem Bokhari, who accused Chaudhry of intimidating advocates in court, using his influence to get his son a Government job, shielding him from investigation and abusing his transport privileges.
In a country rife with corruption where ‘contacts’ and family networks are necessary to get everything from a driver’s licence to electricity, and where it is a well known ‘secret’ that Musharraf has acquired many acres of public land for his private use dismissing such a senior judicial official on such flimsy allegations seems rather harsh. In fact, it appears the allegations are a smoke screen for a politically motivated dismissal.
Confusion has reigned over the dismissal. Originally, it was asserted that Chaudhry had been removed from office. Then, perhaps after Government lawyers inspected the nation’s Constitution, it was announced that Chaudhry was still Chief Justice but had merely been placed on ‘forced leave’ while an investigation into the allegations unfolded.
There were reports that Chaudhry was under house arrest. But a few days later, Musharraf, through the Acting Chief Justice, assured everyone that Chaudhry was free to do as he pleased except return to the Supreme Court.
After private television stations broadcast images of the Chief Justice and members of his family being manhandled by police, a Supreme Court panel was hastily set up to investigate the incident. At least one of these stations was ransacked by police for showing images of police clashing with lawyers protesting the Chief Justice’s removal. Soon after, the Government took both private television stations off air. The public outcry eventually forced the Government to allow the television stations back on air and compelled Musharraf to personally apologise.
It is widely understood in Pakistan that Chaudhry has been removed not because of any misconduct but because he threatened Musharraf’s absolute rule, as demonstrated in a number of recent decisions. Last year, for example, the Chaudhry Supreme Court refused a Government request to dispose of a matter seeking to trace the whereabouts of hundreds of missing persons believed to have been abducted by Pakistani intelligence services. Chaudhry and a majority of the Supreme Court have also been highly critical of the Government’s inability to prosecute individuals guilty of ‘honour’ crimes against women and children. And last year, the Supreme Court overturned the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills Corporation (PSMC) on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Prior to the decision, the Government had virtually completed the sale of PSMC to a consortium headed by a close friend of Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz at below the market price.
Another perceived reason for Chaudhry’s removal was Musharraf’s fear that the judge would not endorse his re-election later this year as President while also holding the office of Chief of the Armed Forces.
This may suggest that Chaudhry is something of a judicial activist, but he is also a respected member of Pakistan’s elite. In 2004, Chaudhry supported Musharraf’s amendment of the Constitution to enable him to serve simultaneously as both Chief of the Armed Forces and President. The following year, Chaudhry was promoted to Chief Justice.
Former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry
Chaudhry’s dismissal has compromised Pakistan’s already fragile political fabric in a way that is difficult to underestimate but easy to misinterpret. One obvious repercussion has been the further erosion of the Musharraf regime’s legitimacy. Already, a Deputy Attorney-General and at least five judges have resigned in protest at the dismissal. Thousands of lawyers throughout Pakistan have staged boycotts of the court system and the main opposition Parties have condemned the dismissal, uniting, at least for the time being, both the religious and secular ends of the political spectrum.
Whereas the general perception in the West is that Musharraf is a bulwark against a growing Islamist movement, Chaudhry’s dismissal undermines one of Pakistan’s most powerful surviving secular institutions a Common Law judiciary modeled on its English counterpart.
In an environment where governance is mired in corruption and human rights abuses are frequent, the Supreme Court has been one of the few institutions in Pakistan capable of challenging the twin threats of fundamentalist violence and increasing authoritarianism. Pakistan has a system of Sharia or ‘Islamic Law’ Courts whose decisions only the Supreme Court has the power to overturn. This has been demonstrated over the past few years in a string of matters where the Supreme Court overturned Sharia Court decisions which allowed a number of sex offenders to go unpunished, and which had limited the rights of women in property disputes.
There has been a deafening silence from the United States, Britain, and Australia all key allies of Pakistan over the Chief Justice’s dismissal. The US State Department’s first response was to assert that it was an internal matter for the Pakistan Government. A US spokesperson later explained:
We believe that President Musharraf has made a commitment to change Pakistan and we think that is a positive thing. We’re not going to dictate to him or anybody else and the Pakistani people exactly what those changes are going to be or specific steps that they might need to take. Of course, we can offer guidance and counsel and encouragement to continue along the pathway to democracy. But President Musharraf is good has been a solid friend in fighting the War on Terror.
Neither the British nor the Australian Governments have issued any public statement on the dismissal.
This remarkable silence is not insignificant. Pakistan is heavily reliant on economic and political support from the West, particularly the US. Without this support there is a real prospect that Pakistan would become a ‘failed State’ like its eastern neighbour Afghanistan.
Prior to September 2001, the Pakistan economy was severely depressed due to an international economic embargo in response to its decision to go nuclear and its refusal to become a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Musharraf himself was not expected to remain in power much longer. But all that changed after 9/11, when Musharraf sensed a dramatic shift in the political winds. As the US State Department country profile for Pakistan explains:
The events of September 11, 2001, and Pakistan’s agreement to support the United States led to military assistance to provide spare parts and equipment to enhance Pakistan’s capacity to police its western border and address its legitimate security concerns. In 2003, President Bush announced that the United States would provide Pakistan with $3billion in economic and military aid over 5 years. This assistance package commenced during FY 2005.
Incredibly that economic support is expected to increase over the next few years, despite the present crisis.
The sad irony is that countries like the United States, Britain and Australia could play a bigger role in fomenting democracy in Pakistan precisely because they have strong and cordial military, economic and political ties. A bureaucrat from any one of these countries might claim that they are doing ‘all they can’ behind the scenes to protest the removal of the Pakistani Chief Justice. But there is no better way to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of ordinary Pakistanis and the global Muslim community than to issue a strong public condemnation of the dismissal.
Given this environment, it is very unlikely that Chaudhry will be able to serve as Chief Justice with the same level of freedom and impartiality as before. His best hope of returning would be through concerted political pressure. In a dictatorship heavily reliant on foreign military, economic and political support, the most effective form of pressure would be from key international allies like the United States but also Britain, and even Australia.
Part of the thinking in the West may be that Musharraf provides stability in a volatile region of the world. But by investing too much in Musharraf as an individual agent of stability, Pakistan’s Western allies are actually consolidating his grip on power instead of developing institutional stability in the country. Rather than being a vanguard against religious fanaticism and militancy, Musharraf is actually creating a vacuum in legitimate authority that is improving the prospects of a militant Islamist takeover.
In other words, by supporting Musharraf and ignoring his contempt for democratic reform, of which the dismissal of Chief Justice Chaudhry is the most recent example, Pakistan’s Western allies are actually undermining their own stated aim of combating religious fanaticism and promoting democratic reform around the world.
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