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Saturday, 1 November 2008

A tumultuous year - by Aitzaz Ahsan

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I waited for the results of the Kurd election with some trepidation. The government and the judges had put in their most fervent efforts against him. And it would not only be a mandate for him. It would also be a judgement on me. I too was under scrutiny. Thus when charged lawyers raised me on their shoulders as the landslide results poured in I felt a weight lift off mine.

I had had no intention of contesting for the office of president Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA). Remaining in the national arena I had never participated in bar politics. Yet I had spent an intense few months literally at the wheel of the Lawyers' Movement driving the Chief Justice through sunsets and sunrises and arguing his critical petition before the Supreme Court. I was tired. It was no doubt Punjab's turn but Hamid Khan had already nominated Kazim Khan (now an opponent of the CJP) as a pro-Movement candidate. Yet Munir Malik, Iqbal Haider, Tariq Mahmood and Asma Jahangir had virtually roped me in to contest.

"It is your victory more than mine," a gracious Kurd said as the two of us were precariously lofted on jostling shoulders. "You raised the profile of the SCBA on the national horizon." He was obviously overly generous though mine had indeed been a turbulent tenure. But I had been in the eye of the storm long before my term had begun.

Months before it, CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry had been ousted by Pakistan's military dictator General Musharraf. He had then been reinstated by a unanimous judgement of thirteen judges of the Supreme Court. Lawyers raised the banner of revolt when there was no challenge within the country to the dictator. Crippled, he prostrated at the feet of the exiled leaders within days of the July 20 verdict.

Later when Musharraf stood for re-election to the office of president a perfectly legitimate constitutional challenge was mounted before an 11-member bench of senior judges. As it seemingly neared a decision against Musharraf he, on November 3, arrested the CJP (who was not even on the bench), most of the judges comprising the bench and several other judges of the high courts including the chief justices of Sindh and Peshawar. I was one of several thousand lawyers across Pakistan arrested in a massive swoop. Pakistan was placed under martial law (deceptively called emergency). Judges were required to take an oath contrary to the one they had previously taken under the Constitution.

Despite arrests and strong-arm tactics the movement continued. Weakened severely by it Musharraf was compelled to shed his uniform, allow the exiled leadership to return and to hold elections on February 18, 2008. In a letter of December 5, 2007 from detention, I proposed participation in the elections. The letter was widely reported and commented upon but the proposal was not accepted by the Pakistan Bar Council. To keep the movement in tact I withdrew my nomination papers from my Lahore constituency. The result of the elections was a resounding set back to Musharraf. Lacking representation in parliament we continued our struggle.

Our position was clear. No one man had the right to suspend the constitution or fire and detain any judge as per the November 3 actions. No judge could be removed in this manner. The CJP and judges continued as judges and no fresh oath was required.

Since we now perceived a certain lack of will on the part of parliament we pressed on. By March 2008 Munir Malik, Tariq Mahmood, Ali Ahmed Kurd and I had been freed. Each had been through a really harrowing time with Munir almost losing both this kidneys.

The SCBA postponed a long march scheduled for March 9 as parliament was yet to meet. Instead we announced a country-wide Black Flag Week. I toured Bars and bazaars and exhorted people to fly black flags. Across the country black flags began to be hoisted ahead of March 9. On that day the leaders of the PPP and the PML-N signed the Murree declaration. They promised the reinstatement of all the judges within 30 days of the formation of the federal government. We naturally thought that we had achieved our objective. The nation celebrated.

It celebrated in vain. So our weekly protests and strikes continued. So did the conspiracies against the movement. On April 8 former minister Sher Afgan was about to be lynched in Lahore and the blame placed on lawyers. On my personal intervention they actually saved him. The next day lawyers were torched in Karachi.

Anguished at conspiracies and the delay, we called for a long march to Islamabad. I again toured the country, making speeches and reciting poetry to mobilize the people. The march began in the distant parts of the country on June 9 and culminated in the Parade Ground outside parliament on the 14th morning with about 400,000 people. It was a stunning success. The people had spoken. We thought that the rulers would listen.

Seemingly they did. They instantly paid 'salaries' to the non-functioning judges. On August 5 and 7 two fresh declarations were signed by the old partners with the addition of Asfandyar Wali, Fazlur-Rahman and the FATA Group. The judges would be restored within 24 hours of Musharraf's ouster. What more could we achieve? We believed in the formally written, solemnly signed and publicly announced declaration of our political leaders. This time the celebrations, however, were cautious. Musharraf had resigned on August 18 but the judges were not restored as per the Murree declaration. Instead 25 more judges were persuaded to return to the court after taking a fresh oath thus accepting their dismissal on November 3 as lawful. With these judges giving in, some pressure on the government was eased. So we called for countrywide sit-ins.

On August 28, lawyers and the brave men and women of civil society held two-hour dharnas all over the country. All traffic was jammed. We were conscious of the inconvenience this would cause to the public. But the people responded with full support and understanding. However we made arrangements for the passage of ambulances, doctors and school vans.

The CJP's visits to Faisalabad, Multan, Bahawalpur, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar still drew mammoth crowds, though we lost the brave Imdad Awan. We had also scheduled an International Jurists' Conference in October. There was enthusiastic response with judges due to arrive from the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The CJP was to inaugurate it. The conference blew up with the venue: the Islamabad Marriott. But with the high profile of the movement the CJP received more international recognition during this tenure including Harvard's Medal of Freedom previously awarded only to Nelson Mandela and Thorogood Marshall.

My only regret is that he was not restored during my tenure despite a series of victories, including, most significantly repeated formal, signed and publicly declared promises by the coalition partners. To the nation's dismay, the promises have not been kept. But as Kurd himself observed after victory: "the battles were won in Aitzaz's tenure; the war, God willing, will be won in mine." Till then we will not rest. (The News)

The writer is a former interior minister and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Email: aitzaz_ ahsan@ hotmail.com

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