By Aitzaz Ahsan for Newsweek February 11, 2008
In the past months, as the crisis in Pakistan has worsened, key figures in the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have spoken out about the need for free and fair elections and have condemned extremism. Yet they’ve continued through-out to support the man who poll after poll show to be the least popular public figure in Pakistan, less so even than Osama bin Laden: President Pervez Musharraf.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte went so far as to call Musharraf an “indispensable ally” just days after the general declared de facto martial law and suspended Pakistan’s Constitution.
All the while, U.S. officials have ignored a man who lives a mere stone’s throw from Musharraf. This man’s exclusion might seem understandable: barbed wire surrounds his home, the phone lines are cut and the gate is padlocked from the outside. Yet he is no dangerous criminal. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is the chief justice of Pakistan. He’s also one of the most popular figures in the country, according to recent polls, and its best hope for returning to a democratic path.
Chaudhry was an unlikely figure to become public enemy No. 1. He was appointed chief justice in June 2005 by Musharraf himself. Once on the bench, though Chaudhry proved independent, he was no iconoclast. Yet he acted in ways that made Pakistan’s powerful elites nervous. He expanded the jurisdiction of his court in the domain of human rights, refusing to tolerate police abuses. He reached out to victims of forced marriages and Pakistan’s unjust rape laws. He blocked a number of land developments that would have harmed the environment. And in the process, he made some powerful enemies: many of the developers he stymied were Musharraf cronies or Army officers.
The chief justice made himself even more unpopular in 2006 when he began to probe into a growing scandal over missing persons. In the years since September 11, Pakistan had suffered a disturbing number of forced disappearances, as individuals were yanked off the streets, allegedly by security personnel. As the number of victims grew, mothers, wives and daughters of the disappeared began to picket the Supreme Court. Finally the justices took notice and in 2006, after several hearings and much prodding by the court, some 200 missing people were released from custody. Musharraf was reportedly angry with the move and told the Americans that Chaudhry had ordered the release of 60 terrorists arrested during the Red Mosque crackdown. In fact, it was three other justices, none of whom were fired, who had released those captives; Chaudhry wasn’t even involved in that decision.
It was probably the matter of Musharraf’s own future that sealed Chaudhry’s fate. Late last year Musharraf began to worry that if the chief justice insisted on following the letter of the law, Musharraf would be barred from running for another term as president (since the Constitution disqualifies anyone in uniform from standing for the office, and Musharraf was still head of the Army). To prevent any objections, on Nov. 3 Musharraf fired the Supreme Court judges, had them arrested and also detained the attorney pleading the case against him: me.
This was not the first time Musharraf had moved against the chief justice. He had first ordered him to resign in March 2007, and when Chaudhry refused, had removed and detained him, though the justice was unanimously reinstated by 13 members of his own bench in July.
It was Chaudhry’s campaign to get back onto the court that turned him into a national hero. After he was sacked, bar associations across the country invited him to speak. As he traveled the country, millions came out to receive him. Wherever he went, men, women and children poured out to cheer him on for having defied the increasingly unpopular general. Showing solidarity became a way to denounce the president. Ordinary citizens cheered Chaudhry with defiance in their eyes. I know–for I was his driver during this tour.
Chaudhry’s brave stance soon won him accolades around the world: Harvard Law School gave him its highest award, the Medal of Freedom, and the New York City Bar Association made him a rare honorary member.
Yet U.S. officials remain unmoved, despite a letter Chaudhry sent to Western leaders last week protesting his treatment. Blind to the overwhelming support Chaudhry enjoys at home and abroad, Washington continues to pay lip service to the need for an independent judiciary in Pakistan while doing nothing to support one. This strategy is dangerously shortsighted. The United States has every reason to worry about terrorism and instability in Pakistan. But allowing Musharraf to continue arresting judges and peaceful protesters will only strengthen the terrorists’ hand. If we lock up our judges and subvert the legal process, then those who believe in a more brutal kind of justice will triumph. It’s therefore high time to take a stand. From now on no dignitary should visit the president on his hill without making it a point to inquire about the prisoner on the hill nearby. Due process and democratic principles demand nothing less.
Ahsan, a former minister for law, justice and the interior in Pakistan, is currently president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. He has been detained without charge since Nov. 3.