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Pakistan's struggle for democracy: The lawyers' movement one year on (+ video)

By Farooq Tariq, Lahore

March 7, 2008 -- 2008 will be a year of decisive struggle in Pakistan. Over the past year an advocates' (lawyers') movement rose to confront the dictatorship of President Pervez Musharraf. Its aim is to create an atmosphere where the judiciary can work independently, without being under the influence of any regime, whether military or civil.

Only a year old, it has achieved impressive results.

The movement began on March 9, 2007, when the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, responded negatively to the request from five generals -- including Musharraf -- that he voluntarily resign. Offered several other lucrative posts, he responded with a firm ``No'', resulting his immediate arrest and termination from the Supreme Court.

Video: interview with Farooq Tariq

Why did the generals want to get rid of Pakistan's chief justice? His decisions were blocking growing repression and the implementation of Musharraf's neoliberal agenda. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, thousands of Pakistanis simply disappeared; Chaudhry publicly questioned their disappearance. He tried to force accountability from the country's powerful secret service. Chaudhry issued a decision against the privatisation of the country's largest industrial unit, the Pakistan Steel Mill Karachi.

Chaudhry was operating like a human rights activist, doing his best to address the question of growing human rights violations. He took special notice of anti-woman traditions and customs and prohibited the selling and trading of women.

Musharraf did not foresee the mass reaction Chaudhry's arrest and termination would cause, since there were no other examples of prominent people standing up to his brutal and high-handed actions.

Chaudhry's ``No'' was a landmark in the history of the judiciary. Every previous military coup had been legitimised by the country's top judges. Out of the 61 years of so-called independence, Pakistan has spent 32 years under military rule.

As the private television channels broadcast the news of Chaudhry's dismissal and arrest, leading lawyers were asked for their opinion. Every one explained it as an extraordinary action: there was no previous record of such an action against the chief justice. They called on other lawyers to come forward in a mass response.

Year One of the Pakistan lawyers' movement is unprecedented, and there have been several ups and downs. It has witnessed ugly scenes of police and army brutality, but the lawyers never gave up. One of the main characteristics of this marvellous movement is its clear demand, which was accepted by every one: the demand for an independent judiciary. The Musharraf dictatorship is clearly seen as a brutal regime trying to curb the rising consciousness of independent judicial system.

Three phases

The movement lead by the lawyers can be divided in three phases:

• The beginning phase, ending on July 20, 2007, when an 11-member bench of Supreme Court Pakistan reinstated Chaudhry.

• The second phase, from July 20 until November 3, 2007, when the Musharraf dictatorship imposed an emergency degree.

• The third phase, from the imposition of the emergency until the general elections on 18 February, 2008.

During the first phase, leaders of the lawyers' movement did not directly attack Musharraf. They also asked Chaudhry not to speak to the media. Instead they built an effective base by speaking to bar associations across the country. This meant that they did not immediately seem to be doing anything out of the ordinary.

Chaudhry toured the country by road to speak to various bar councils. His caravan was welcomed by hundred of thousands of ordinary people. But he did not speak a single word to the press. He concentrated on making general democratic remarks at the bar council meetings, which were open only to lawyers. Political activists made no fuss about this exclusion but cooperated with the lawyers.

These rallies were the largest mobilisations during the years of the Musharraf dictatorship and signalled the lawyers' total support for Chaudhry. This method of proceeding meant that he was speaking ``under the radar''. It did not seem that he was organising a ``political'' campaign against the regime. In this manner Chaudhry was able to speak about the political situation without being ``political''.

Initially the leaders of the lawyers' movement were divided over whether they wanted participation from political parties. Some argued that parties might create problems or take over the movement. Some feared that if they invited the political parties, then the religious fundamentalist parties would gain control and they did not want to see that happen.

During the first month there was a fierce debate among the lawyers' elected bodies over these questions. After coming to the conclusion that they could not win the struggle on their own, they invited all the civil society organisations to participate.

When Chaudhry's case was scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court, the lawyers called for a *gherao* at the court (a gherao is a picket line, a practice used by the industrial working class all over the world). This very popular tactic of picketing was used effectively by the lawyers' movement and made headlines in all the main electronic and print media.

The media popularised the movement to such an extent that the Musharraf dictatorship responded by introducing new laws to curb the growing radicalisation of the media.

In its first phase the lawyers' movement was able to mobilise and unify the 80,000-strong lawyers' community. The bar associations across the country have deeply democratic traditions, including yearly elections. Those who have been elected don't run the following year so that there is a constant development of new leadership. These democratic traditions enable the lawyers to develop an evolving leadership that is always alive and deserving of respect. Normally, once a decision is taken, all lawyers follow. Those within the lawyers' community who were not supportive of restoring Chaudhry to his office were socially isolated and, in many cases, their licenses to practice were suspended by the Pakistan Bar Council.

In this first phase, the state tried to suppress the movement by arresting the lawyers, and dispersing the demonstrations and rallies by force. But this did not succeed. Every repressive act motivated more militant actions. The lawyers' black coats became respectable dress and many ordinary Pakistanis bought black coats from second-hand shops just in order to get such respect.

Mass movement

The lawyers organised weekly demonstrations, usually every Thursday. It was mainly the young lawyers, who found new hope in the shape of this movement and its weekly actions. Young and particularly female lawyers showed absolute bravery as they fought pitched battles with the police. It was their first political action and they brought new energy to the movement.

The main political parties that fully supported the movement and participated in the weekly actions were the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf, the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), Khaksaar Tehreek, National Workers Party and Awami Tehreek. Activists of these parties were arrested several times for the crime of participating in the rallies.

Most of the radical non-government organisations and movements also fully supported this movement. Their support gave new meaning to civil society organisation. The concept, ``civil society organisation'', became well known because of the total support to the movement. In fact everyone participating in this unique movement earned respect from all sections of society.

The first victory

The full bench of the Supreme Court, which was hearing Chaudhry's case, decided to reinstate the chief justice on July 20, 2007. This was a historic victory of a mass movement and was not viewed as ``political''.

Chaudhry immediately took office, became chief justice once more after a nearly four-month interval. Following his reinstatement, he began releasing political prisoners. He ordered the immediate recovery of missing persons; and some were eventually released by intelligence agencies. He stopped the construction of high-rise buildings that violated the building code. He didn't let corruption within the state go unnoticed.

Chaudhry now had the full support of the other top judges, as well as those who already had become ``people friendly'', the lawyers' community and the people of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the regime was angrily waiting for a time to take action against the top judges once again. The Musharraf dictatorship, already unpopular, was weakened by Chaudhry's reinstatement. The power of the judiciary was contesting the power of the military generals and bureaucrats. In that sense there were some elements of dual power at work within the country.

Unfortunately, when the case of whether Musharraff would be allowed to stand for president in coming elections came before the Supreme Court, it hesitated in issuing a decision. The Supreme Court had provisionally allowed him to contest the election, but his candidacy was challenged because the constitution does not allow the same person to be president and chief of the army at the same time. Additionally, he was elected by a pro-Musharraf parliament that had been seated since 2002 and was overdue for re-election. In fact, Musharraf was ``elected'' with the shameful support of the PPP, which opted not to oppose Musharraf's candidacy and abstained from the vote.

Ruling class manoeuvres

In fact, the late PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, then living in exile, was in contact with Musharraf to work out a power-sharing deal. But the two sides were afraid of the rising power of a movement that could challenge their own political hegemony.

Benazir saw an opportunity to come to power once again. Both the US and British governments had lost confidence in Musharraf's ability to fight effectively as their partner in the so-called war on terror and pushed this unholy alliance as the means through which Musharraf would be able to continue to rule.

For his part, Musharraf needed to regain time following the failure of his attempt to unseat Chaudhry. So, reluctantly, he went to the negotiating table with Bhutto.

The PPP also had considerable influence among the lawyers' movement. While the main leadership of the lawyers' movement was now calling for Musharraf's resignation, the PPP directed its leaders not to raise this demand. This created confusion and division among the lawyers' community all over Pakistan. The majority wanted to push ahead and end the military dictatorship, but now there was division in their own ranks.

It took two months of fierce debate and discussion among the lawyers' elected bodies to work out their future course of action. Finally, an absolute majority came out in favour of continuing the movement. It decided to continue its weekly rallies, although, without the presence of the PPP activists, these did not have the same power as earlier.

Meanwhile, after striking a deal with Musharraf, Bhutto returned to Pakistan from eight years of exile. The state withdrew all outstanding charges of corruption against her in the name of ``national reconciliation''. The day of her arrival, October 18, 2007, religious fundamentalists carried out a suicide attack on the caravan welcoming her. This attack killed more than 150 people.

Musharraf strikes first

Musharraf could not be sure what would be the Supreme Court's final decision about his eligibility to be president and opted to strike first. On November 3, 2007, he suspended the constitution once again and arrested all the top judges. He introduced a new Provisional Constitutional Order and demanded all of the top judges to take a new oath under the PCO. To his surprise, more than 60 top judges refused. In the fight against the military dictatorship, Chaudhry was now joined by two-thirds of his colleagues. All were placed under house arrest, but it was difficult for the regime to find judges who would take its oath.

The PCO was the second martial law decree issued by Musharraf in the name of the supposed ``emergency''. There was a new wave of terror with more than 25,000 lawyers and political activists arrested and private television channels closed down.

After a month the arrested advocates were released, and so were most of the political activists. But the constitution was hobbled with repressive amendments giving power to the military to try any civilian in military courts. The independent judiciary had been eliminated, the movement suppressed.

Having done his homework, Musharraf then announced a general election for January 8, 2008. In this repressive situation the lawyers' movement appealed to all political parties to boycott the general election. They argued that by participating they would be legitimising Musharraf's dictatorial measures.

With the vast majority of the lawyers in favour of boycotting, the political scene was divided into two distinctive trends, those advocating the boycott and those participating in the election. Unfortunately the two main parties opted to contest the election.

With both the pro-election campaign and the boycott movement gaining steam, Bhutto's assassination on December 27, 2007, altered the political scenario. A mass reaction against the assassination brought a wave of sympathy for the PPP. Musharraf was isolated to an extent never seen before.

Added to that factor was the country's economic collapse. These factors caused a decisive change in the consciousness of the Pakistan working class. Its passive negativism toward the regime turned into active opposition.

Had the PPP leadership opted to boycott the general elections -- now postponed until February 18, 2008 -- and demanded the resignation of Musharraf, the scenario would have been different. Musharraf would have had no choice. But the PPP once again ignored the advice of the lawyers' movement and decided to take part in the general election.

Those who went to polls on February 18 voted against the pro-Musharraf political parties. But whichever side one was on over the question of participating in the elections, and whichever tactics employed, everyone was united in their opposition to Musharraf.

We have now entered the next phase of the unfolding struggle. The question remains: Will those coming to power reinstate the judiciary (a popular demand that would be very difficult to ignore), force Musharraf out and restore the Constitution? Such a step would be the first toward building an independent democratic society where exploitation should be a word of the past. The building of a genuine democratic socialist Pakistan is the only way forward.

[Farooq Tariq is spokesperson for the Labour Party Pakistan. Email Visit or]



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