Most Pakistanis woke up without any knowledge of what had just occurred. Early on Monday morning, on the day that the Long March protestors were due to arrive in Islamabad, the Pakistan Government finally agreed to their demands to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
"It is time to fulfil our promises," said Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in a snap televised speech while most Pakistanis were fast asleep. The announcement came after frenetic discussions between the Government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari from the Pakistan Peoples Party, and the Pakistan Muslim League, led by key opposition politician Nawaz Sharif.
Just a day earlier the country was on the verge of a political crisis as a confrontation between the Zardari-controlled Government and Sharif’s coalition of opposition groups escalated.
The ostensible cause of the friction was Zardari’s refusal to honour a Charter of Democracy which had been signed by his wife — slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto — and Nawaz Sharif in 2006 during the height of former president Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship. A crucial symbol of Zardari’s failure on this score was his continued refusal to reinstate Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf two years ago.
At the time, Chaudhry was accused of intimidating advocates in court, using his influence to get his son a Government job, and of abusing his transport privileges. More than that, however, he had turned himself into a marked man by making rulings that challenged the unaccountable nature of government business in the country.
In a country mired in endemic corruption, particularly at the highest levels of power, the decision to remove a Chief Justice over seemingly innocuous charges created widespread suspicion among the legal community — which immediately rushed to his defence and formed the lawyers’ movement at the centre of the Long March protest.
President Zardari is technically not the head of state and he is meant to be co-chair of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Yet in reality he is very much the key decision maker and his clamp down on the protestors during the Long March reminded the population of the darkest days of the Musharraf regime.
The Government’s decision to back down and reinstate Chaudhry was therefore greeted with a collective sigh of relief throughout the country. There was widespread jubilation in cities across the country as grown men danced the bangara in their black suits while drums blared and sweets were distributed to the crowds.
The international community too was glad to see the dispute resolved, as was the business community — the Karachi Stock Exchange rallied this morning in response to the announcement.
The hill-top official residence of the Chief Justice was mobbed by well wishers of every social and political hue. People waited, for the most part patiently, to catch a glimpse of the one popular figure in this country not considered corrupt or despotic. Lawyers in their signature black suits were joined by civil and political activists and ordinary citizens — rich and poor alike.
"This has been a movement for the small people and the big people," said Zahid Iqbal, an Islamabad taxi driver carrying large banner with Justice Chaudhry’s face on it. He, like so many hundreds of thousands, had been with the lawyers’ movement from the very start.
Judges of the superior courts do not generally enter the popular canon. Few, in any society, can name the bench of their country’s highest court. Yet Chaudhry has captured the popular imagination in Pakistan precisely because of his independence and regard for the rule of law. "He has zero tolerance… [for]corruption, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses," explained Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the leaders of the lawyers’ movement.
Chaudhry built that reputation on the back of judgments which challenged the generally unaccountable nature of government business. That included deciding against a Musharraf government decision to sell the national steel mills to a consortium linked to then prime minister Shaukat Aziz for markedly less than the market value. Most significantly, Chaudhry challenged the generals by ordering the Government to explain the whereabouts of hundreds of missing persons believed kidnapped under the aegis of the United States’ "war on terror".
When, in August 2007, Chaudhry threatened to jail the head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency if he did not produce one of these missing persons, he likely sealed his own fate. On 3 November 2007, President Musharraf announced a state of emergency. A hastily convened bench of the Chaudhry Supreme Court held that the announcement was unconstitutional the very same day. Soldiers stormed the Court and duly arrested him. In total 60 judges from Pakistan’s federal and state courts were removed.
In a country where, from its very founding, the powerful do as they wish and no Supreme Court has ever challenged the writ of the generals and presidents, Chaudhry has been a trailblazer. Rabble rousers and political adversaries routinely die in mysterious circumstances in Pakistan. Every major politician buffers him or herself with a personal security outfit. The roads are off limits to ordinary citizens whenever the president or prime minister decides to travel.
Over the weekend, residents of Islamabad witnessed the intimidating sight of giant cargo containers being placed at every major roadway. By Sunday the city was cut off from the rest of the country. By Monday morning, however, the barriers had been removed as quickly as they were put in place. Instead of the protracted and violent clash between Government authorities and opposition groups that many had expected, Islamabad remained peaceful throughout the day.
"[The decision to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as Chief Justice] is in the best interests of stability in the country," said presidential spokesperson Farah Naz Isphani.
In the end, it was in President Zardari’s interests too.
Pakistan will likely remain plagued by crises well after today. But by demonstrating the importance of functioning and accountable institutions, the country’s lawyers may well have started the country on its long march out of this present quagmire.
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