A Long Wait for Justice


It was hot and humid in Karachi last Wednesday as Iftikhar Chaudhry, the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court urged lawyers gathered at the Sindh High Court to continue their demands for an independent judiciary.

In May last year Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf, sacked several federal and provincial judges in a move widely condemned as an attempt to take control of the judiciary. He subsequently reconstituted the Supreme Court, Pakistan’s highest court, with a bench of handpicked judges. (You can read my reports on these events for newmatilda.com here and here.)

But there is continued and widespread dismay, especially from the legal profession, at the failure of the new civilian Government under Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani to reinstate the sacked judges. "Without the rule of law, there will be no end to injustice in this country," Chaudhry told the packed hall. Chaudhry also blamed Pakistan’s lack of transparency for flagging foreign investment in the country, alluding to a recent Pakistan State Bank report on an alarming increase in national debt and inflation.

"The main problem in this country is [that]powerful people are above the law," said Abid Feroze, a young lawyer involved in the movement. "Throughout our history the judges have supported the dictators. Now, for once, someone is challenging this impunity."

"How can we have justice when our judges are not independent?" asked Sarwar Khan, one of the most senior barristers at the gathering. Last year, Khan, along with hundreds of others, was imprisoned for three weeks during a protest in Karachi against the removal of judges.

"We were kept in a hall, 70 of us. There were no beds, no sheets, nothing. So we had to sleep on the ground. There was one bathroom for everybody. They wanted us to accept that we were disturbing the peace. We refused. Eventually they let us go [because]they couldn’t charge us."

Lawyers and journalists jostled for positions as senior advocates and deposed judges from each of Pakistan’s four major provinces spoke at last week’s event. The assembled lawyers chanted "Go, Musharraf – go!" while consecutive speakers called for the reinstatement of the sacked lawyers.

The movement has given the Government until 14 August to restore all sacked judges to their positions. "If they are not returned, we will [recommence]our civil disobedience," said Muneer Malik, another senior lawyer.

Government authorities did not allow any of Pakistan’s numerous satellite channels to broadcast the event live. According to a media source who refused to be named, the decision suggests that the civilian Government, which had campaigned on a platform openly hostile to Musharraf at the last elections, was nevertheless anxious not to upset the General, who in 1999 took control of the country in a bloodless coup.

Pakistan’s fragile civilian administration remains plagued by the decision of senior Government figures, most notably Pakistan People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Zardari, to delay the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Musharraf. Officially, the PPP argues that constitutional issues need to be addressed before any reinstatement takes place.

Privately, however, there is widespread speculation that there are other motives for the delay. The feeling is that Zardari, who is the billionaire husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, fears a reinstated and reinvigorated Supreme Court will make an adverse finding on a number of corruption cases against him.

Some, such as Chief Justice Chaudhry and other leaders of the lawyers’ movement, suspect the PPP-led Government has reached a compromise with Musharraf aimed at frustrating moves to have the judges returned. The other major coalition partner, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, supports their immediate reinstatement.

For now it appears unlikely the judges will be returned to office. But the lawyers say they are determined to keep up their fight. "We are here for the long haul," Sarwar Khan told me. "Already it has been 16 months [without the reinstatement of judges]. But if you look at it, Pakistan has been waiting for justice for a lot longer."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.