As Pakistan reinstates justices formerly deposed by General Muscharrraf, Umer Rashid examines the country’s difficult road back to democratic social and political processes.
IN A SURPRISE move, on Monday 16th March, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and all other judges deposed by the former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. In his televised national address, he also ordered the release of political activists arrested over the past week and appealed for political reconciliation in Pakistan.
The Prime Minister’s announcement came as tens of thousands of protestors were heading toward Islamabad to stage a sit-in in front of the parliament for the reinstatement of the deposed judges. The rally, dubbed the ‘Long March’, comprised lawyers, civil society activists and political workers from major opposition parties. As soon as the news of Chaudhry’s reinstatement emerged, jubilant Pakistanis were on the streets dancing and chanting slogans in his support. The opposition leaders immediately decided to call off the ‘Long March’.
No country can progress without an independent judiciary and the government – by restoring the chief justice and other judges – has also realised it, and we think it is a big success,” said Ali Ahmad Kurd, President of Supreme Court Bar Association.
Pervez Musharraf had first suspended the Chief Justice Chaudhry in March 2007 after the latter challenged a series of government decisions. However, in a landmark decision, Supreme Judicial Council reinstated Chaudhry as Chief Justice of Pakistan in July 2007, reversing a decision of a military ruler for the first time in the history of the country. Frustrated by his efforts to curtail the independence of judiciary, General Musharraf declared a state of emergency, fired 60 superior court judges and put them, along with their families, under house arrest in November 2007.
“The movement resulted in the defeat of Musharraf’s political allies in general elections and subsequently ending his nine-year military rule in 2008”
The dismissal of Chaudhry triggered an unprecedented lawyers’ movement in Pakistan, campaigning on the streets for the Chief Justice’s reinstatement and the preservation of judicial independence. As part of their protest, the lawyers refused to appear before the new Supreme Court headed by Musharraf’s hand-picked Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Dogar, derisively called ‘Dogar Court’.
The movement resulted in the defeat of Musharraf’s political allies in general elections and subsequently ending his nine-year military rule in 2008. In recognition of his courageous stance against military crackdown, Harvard Law School awarded its highest honor, the Medal of Freedom, to Chaudhry, thus, making him the third person after Charles Hamilton Houston and Nelson Mandela to receive that prestigious award.
In 2008, Chaudhry was granted an honorary lifetime membership of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, he being the sixth ever non-American to receive this honorary membership.
The removal of General Musharraf’s regime generated a wave of optimism in political circles that the new democratic government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, would live up to its pledge of reinstatement of the deposed judiciary.
However, apprehensive of Chaudhry’s independent-mindedness, Zardari started dragging his feet on this very issue. The crisis exacerbated last month when the much-reviled ‘Dogar Court’ disqualified the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, from elected office.
Zardari’s decision to dismiss the Sharifs’ administration in Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest and richest province, further added fuel to the fire. Sharif then decided to join the plans by lawyers to stage a sit-in in Islamabad intended to pressurise the government for reinstatement of the deposed judges. Increasingly weakened by its unpopular measures, resignation of two senior ministers, and the stern warnings from its military and Western allies that a prolonged political showdown would hamper campaign against Taliban and Al-qaeda terrorists, Zaradri’s government decided to give in to opposition demands and announced the reinstatement of Chaudhry as the Chief Justice.
In the past six decades of its independence, Pakistan’s ruling clique – represented by military, feudal politicians and religious firebrands – has enjoyed immunity from laws and regulations meant for the lesser mortals. For sure, Chaudhry’s reinstatement as the Chief Justice is not going to resolve overnight the myriads of problems Pakistan faces today. However, it does send a warning shot to the powers-that-be that with an expanding middle class eager to flex its muscles, the regal depredations are not likely to go on with impunity and some checks and balances must be in place.