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Pakistan's lawyers on the front lines

The clash between President Pervez Musharraf and the judiciary is at the heart of Pakistan's political crisis.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

They inhabit a world of shabby, obscure respectability, meeting clients in mazes of open-air cubicles with old typewriters and frayed files, conferring in narrow alleys around crumbling courthouses and appearing in dim, chairless chambers whose hand-scrawled schedules are tacked to the door frames outside.

But for two weeks, the black-suited lawyers of Pakistan have been at the forefront of the campaign against President Pervez Musharraf, boycotting courts across the country, protesting the emergency rule he imposed on Nov. 3. The strike has delayed thousands of bail hearings, lawsuits and trials.

Each morning, hundreds of lawyers, who call one another "barrister" and "advocate" in the British style and normally confine themselves to the obscure realms of the law, gather at bar association offices in major cities. On signal, they emerge and stride briskly around each court district wearing their black business suits, shouting anti-government slogans as squads of riot police stand guard. Sometimes there are shoving matches, blows and arrests, creating the pointed spectacle of justice under siege.

"How can you walk into a courtroom and address a judge as 'My lord' if he has taken an oath to a dictator?" demanded Asad Abbasi, a bar association leader in Islamabad who leads daily marches around the district court but sleeps in a different house each night, fearing arrest. "Musharraf's actions are illegal, and he is destroying the rule of law."

The clash between Musharraf and the judiciary is at the heart of Pakistan's political crisis. Many analysts say he imposed the emergency largely to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling in favor of opposition petitions challenging the validity of his Oct. 6 election to a new term by compliant national and provincial legislatures.

In recent days, much international attention has focused on the drama surrounding Musharraf's charismatic political rival, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who has attempted to orchestrate mass street protests and denounced Musharraf daily despite being under house arrest, which was lifted Friday.

But on many levels, Musharraf's more important adversary is Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the twice-deposed chief justice of the Supreme Court. After a battle of legal rulings and public protests that erupted when Musharraf first removed Chaudhry in March, the outspoken judge is now also under house arrest in the capital, enshrined as a democratic hero while Musharraf struggles to remain in power.

Now that Chaudhry and other justices likely to rule against Musharraf have been replaced, the court is likely to validate his election. A decision is due within days, and the president said at a news conference Tuesday that "the moment" he receives a positive ruling, he will retire from the army and take oath as a civilian president.

Emboldened by debut in street politics
Meanwhile, the country's legal community remains emboldened by its spring debut in street politics. While many Pakistanis mistrust Bhutto and the country's political elites, they respect the judicial system and have been horrified by the pressure it is facing.

Judges have been deposed, arrested and required to sign loyalty oaths while the constitution is suspended. Hundreds of lawyers have been detained during demonstrations this month and some given jail terms under emergency laws. A small group of senior lawyers, mostly activists in Bhutto's party who filed the legal challenges to Musharraf's election, are being held in prison.

Pakistan has between 80,000 and 90,000 lawyers, an elite class in a country of high illiteracy and poverty. Protest leaders say 90 percent of them have joined the cause. Bar associations all over the country are boycotting proceedings at superior courts until further notice, and temporarily shut down district courts until early last week.

"The political parties have their own interests, but the legal fraternity is united," said Sultan Mahmoud, president of the district bar association in the city of Rawalpindi. More than 100 of its 2,000 members are in custody under emergency laws. "We struggled against Musharraf in March and we succeeded," he said. "Now we are struggling again, and our bottom line is that military rule must end."

Unlike the spurt of protests in the spring against Chaudhry's removal, the continuing nationwide court boycott has been felt most keenly by ordinary Pakistanis.

These include the armies of typists and photocopiers, juice squeezers and shoeshine boys who earn a few dollars a day in the alleys of court districts. More important, they include the thousands of clients -- especially defendants in dirty, crowded jails awaiting bail hearings or trials -- whose cases have been postponed day after day.

Last week, in the half-empty warrens of judicial precincts, clusters of worried petitioners waited outside deserted courtrooms, unsure where to turn. Despite their frustrations, many said they supported the protests and were willing to wait a little longer for their day in court.

In Rawalpindi, a nervous student said he had been accused of stealing a car and needed to report for a hearing.

"I have a lawyer, but he is on strike now. I come to the court every day anyway, because if I don't they might cancel my bail," said the student, Abdul Rehman, 21, standing in a crowd outside a courtroom. "He is right. He is fighting for us, for Pakistan, for democracy. Musharraf is a dictator, and we do not accept him."

Temporary alternatives
Some attorneys said they were devising temporary alternatives for clients, such as coaching them how to represent themselves. They also said sympathetic judges and government prosecutors were postponing court dates.

Other members of the judicial community, while clearly unhappy about the institutional clash, said Musharraf had been right to remove Chaudhry. By their account, the chief justice had interfered with lower court appointments and decisions, and issued rulings that had undermined government prosecutions of suspected terrorists.

"The president did well to bring emergency, because the courts were being obstructed," said one judge in Islamabad who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media. "The chief justice was creating problems in all the provincial courts."

Several months after Chaudhry was accused of official misconduct and removed from his post, the supreme judicial council exonerated him and he was restored to office. Last week, even confined to house arrest, the judge continued to hound Musharraf, issuing anti-government statements by cellphone and addressing a meeting of lawyers.

At the news conference Tuesday, Musharraf complained that the high court had "paralyzed" the government and that Chaudhry had committed a long list of offenses, including appointing favorites, harassing government officials and charging personal bills to the government. He stated categorically that all judges who had refused to sign the new loyalty oath would never be allowed to return to the bench.

"The other side of the story is going unheard," the president said with a tone of exasperation. "I would like to ask, anywhere in the world, what should be done to such a person?" Since Chaudhry acted "above the law," he said, "I did exactly what was legally and constitutionally allowed. I did not violate the constitution. . . . I tried to correct the situation."

Last week, as the temporary boycott of lower courts ended and typewriters began to clack again in the outdoor cubicles surrounding them, bar association members in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and other cities continued to stage orderly half-hour marches and one-hour symbolic "hunger strikes" between routine hearings. There was a hum of returning routine, but it was superficial.

"No one recognizes Musharraf's legitimacy. He has the guns in his hand, but we have the convictions," said Sadia Abbasy, a lawyer and opposition senator, who sat with a garland of flowers around her neck in a quiet protest outside the Islamabad district court on Tuesday. "The judges who refused to take the oath have given us a ray of hope. Now it is up to us to follow their example."