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Unlikely popular heroes of Pakistan's opposition: lawyers

Thousands of lawyers have taken to the streets to protest Musharraf's controversial dismissal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

By Staff writer, David MonteroCorrespondent / June 11, 2007



Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan

Never having so much as attended a protest before, S.M. Shah was not keen to be manhandled, pelted with rocks, and accused of terrorism for leading rallies against President Pervez Musharraf.

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But he has been, many times. As he sat in his office two weeks ago, surrounded by the hefty tomes of Pakistani law, the gray-haired president of the Lahore Bar Association gave a hint of the zeal of a Mohandas Gandhi in leather loafers.

For three months, he and tens of thousands of lawyers nationwide have mounted the most serious challenge to Mr. Musharraf's regime during his eight-year tenure. They have taken to the streets to protest the president's controversial dismissal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court earlier this year.

For defying Musharraf when political parties and the disgruntled masses did not dare, Mr. Shah and his colleagues have become inadvertent revolutionaries – and the great hope of a nation longing for change. Pakistanis have showered them with flowers, given them gold rings, and offered them free merchandise in local shops.

The outpouring is a measure of how dissatisfied many Pakistanis have become with Musharraf's rule as both president and Army chief. And it is only appropriate that the challenge should rise from the ranks of bar associations across Pakistan, experts say, noting that they are one of the last vestiges of democracy in a country ruled by the military since Musharraf seized power in 1999.

"The bar is the only organization in Pakistan that has consistently held elections, and we are now reaping the benefits," says Asma Jahangir, a human rights attorney in Lahore. "It is a very functional democracy."

The protesting attorneys appear to have inspired other dissenters. On Saturday, Musharraf capitulated to a week of massive protests when he rescinded an anti-media law designed to limit coverage of the lawyers.

For its part, the Pakistani bar was first stirred into action with remarkable effect on March 9, when Musharraf tried to force Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to quit, alleging that he had misused his office for personal gain. Yet despite reports of a five-hour private showdown, in which Musharraf – in full military dress – called in generals and politicians to intimidate Mr. Chaudhry, the chief justice did not buckle.

Musharraf ended up tossing him off the court anyway, but the judge's defiance rallied a nation. Like most experts here, Pakistan's lawyers were outraged, arguing that Musharraf wished only to silence a judge who had been ruling against him. "This was the first time a person resisted all alone against the Army," says Iftikhar Qasi, president of the Karachi Bar Association.

At issue, lawyers say, was the independence of the judiciary and the last check on Musharraf's authority, and their response was immediate. The following day, bar associations from Karachi to Lahore called emergency meetings, in which tens of thousands of lawyers chose to fight the only way they knew how. "Lawyers know the law, and the law says everyone has a right to express themselves," says Shah.

In doing so, he has led a gathering that was pelted by tear gas. He has also been roughed up by police and he is now being investigated for terrorist activities. But Shah remains unbowed. Now, he says, he will not stop until Musharraf promises that he will abide by the results of elections this autumn and that the poll will be free and fair.

"In the past, the judiciary has been in collusion with the military," he says. "There is a chance now – if it comes out from under the military, that some relief will be given to the people of Pakistan."

Since March 9, lawyers have led rallies to coincide with every hearing on the chief justice's appeal, as well as one nationwide boycott of the courts each Thursday. Mr. Qasi of Karachi estimates he has held 46 rallies in 90 days, and that nationwide, lawyers are collectively losing $170,000 in income a day to support the protests. In Pakistan, the per capita income per day is about $2.60.

Qasi doesn't calculate how much money he has personally lost, but he does estimate that he works 18 to 20 hours a day and only eats one meal a week with his family. Shah of the Lahore Bar Association has dropped legal work entirely to focus on organizing rallies and mobilizing support, rising at 6:45 a.m. and returning home at 12:30 a.m.

Such dedication has won the hearts of many Pakistanis, partly because the lawyers are not part of any political movement – and therefore their sacrifice is seen to be selfless. Qasi says he recently went into a shop to buy a car mat, only to find that the owner would not allow him to pay. Judges, who normally sneer at lawyers, say Shah and others, have opened up their chambers to help lawyers organize protests.

"When people see me in the black coat [of a lawyer], they give me the thumbs up," Qasi says.

Standing beside a makeshift juice stand near the Lahore Fort, repairman Shakil Ahmed says the lawyers are "doing a good thing." But for him, the rallies are about much more than button-down Clark Kents finding their inner Superman. In a country where the military is perceived as acting as a law unto itself, the question of justice stirs people deeply – and the judiciary is seen as the last bulwark of fairness.

"If someone like me needs justice, [the court] is the only place I can go," Mr. Ahmed says, his tunic stained and dirty.

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