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Success of the lawyers' movement in Pakistan

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Message Zahid Shahab Ahmed
Right now the people from all walks of life are celebrating in Pakistan over the success of a two-year long lawyers’ movement for free judiciary and promotion of democracy. For the present PPP government in Pakistan it has never been a bed of roses because since its inception the government if faced with numerous economic, political and international crises. The country’s economy crashed vis-à-vis the upset domestic economy and the ongoing global economic recession and Pakistan was forced to seek help from the friends of Pakistan as well as the IMF. Later, on the judges issue there was a split in the government between the PPP and PML (Nawaz).

Simultaneously, there has been a massive international pressure to curb terrorism in tribal areas which is fueling tension in Afghanistan by providing refuge to Al-Qaida members and NATO forces even made pre-emptive strikes into Pakistani tribal areas. On contrary to commitments on war against terrorism, the central government had to lean in front of the provincial government in the NWFP and local militants to sign an accord with local Talibans; the Fazlullah faction, on implementation of Islamic law (Sharia) in Swat district to reach ceasefire in the region. President Zardari’s stubbornness on the judges’ issue could almost earn him the sobriquet of “democratic dictator”, but in the past few weeks he was pushed against the wall to restore the Supreme Court judges, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Probably, Zardari still has doubts concerning the judges who were known for being fair and fearless even during the times of General Musharraf. The landmark decision on reinstating the judges came on 16th of March 2009 in a prime ministerial address by Gillani. Earlier marching people were seen dancing and celebrating after hearing the message. Even some of the Punjab Police members who until that time were throwing teargas and beating activists of the lawyers’ movement afterwards were seen on TV dancing along with the celebrating crowd in Lahore.

The people of Pakistan are jubilant and relieved because the decision gives them optimism at a time when there was hardly any ray of hope left due to ongoing political crisis faced with an apparent deadlock. During the course of two-year long lawyers’ movement several political actors stepped in such as the PML (Nawaz), Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and a large number of other civil society actors. The movement was fueled by the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision of February 2009 to nullify the last year’s elections of Shahbaz Sharif as Punjab’s Chief Minister. In response, ten and thousands of people led by lawyers started marching towards Islamabad.

Even a dictator, General Musharraf, couldn’t stand firmly against the people’s power, so how could Zardari. Therefore, the government reinstated the judges. When democracy returned to Pakistan in early 2008, there were hopes that the sacked judges will return to their offices but such high expectations abruptly collapsed with Zardari’s becoming the President. Zardari made all possible attempts to obstruct restoration of judiciary due to selfish reason of protecting the so-called National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).

The NRO gave Zardari amnesty on corruption charges. There are still doubts that the reinstated judges wouldn’t take up the case against the legality of the NRO, which might send Zardari back into his authoritarian shell. There were several ups and downs with successes and failures in the lawyers’ movement, but commendable is the fact that lawyers, particularly the sacked judges, remained firm and committed to the cause of free judiciary in Pakistan.

The Chief Justice was reinstated once before by a 13 member’s bench of the Supreme Court. General Musharraf had to impose the Martial Law in November 2007 to avoid embarrassment from the next door office of Chaudhry, who was once sacked by Musharraf’s presidential order in the beginning of 2007. All this is history, but what is to be remembered that a movement led by non-political actors, lawyers, managed to mobilize masses to not only bring back Chaudhry in his office but also in breaking shackles of Musharraf’s authoritarian rule, which almost a year ago was looking never ending. It reminds me of an article by Saskia Sassen in the Guardian with the title of “Pakistan’s two worlds” on November 7, 2007.

The author visited Lahore in the aftermath of Martial Law in November 2007 and concluded, just like many others, that the street will not rise again. It was in response to thousands of arrested lawyers, who were the flag bearers of the movements.  But that was yet another phase in the lawyers’ movement to re-energize and the leadership under house arrest and behind bars did so and come out with the zest. The change is seen with freedom of media which has played a pivotal role in encouraging critical debates on prime issues without any hesitance, particularly live talk shows on the Geo and Aaj TV channels. The role of the people of Pakistan was evident when they, in large numbers, voted against Musharraf’s political allies in the 2008 general elections so as to walk him out of his office.

This development in Pakistan will be remembered in years to come and will also have long-lasting impacts on socio-political and judicial institutions of Pakistan because the people do rise against injustices. Recalling Obama’s catchy phrase; “the change has come”; is this in the case of Pakistan? I will say ‘yes’!

The change was clearly seen following Chaudhry people were defying Musharraf’s verdict. The change is seen now when the people stand against injustices. The strength of common people is like erupting volcanic lava, once initiated has the power to come over all the hindering barriers coming its way to eventually satiate the aspiration of change.

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Mr. Zahid Shahab Ahmed (M.A. Peace Education from the UN University for Peace, Costa Rica & M.A. Sociology from the University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Pakistan) is a PhD Scholar at the University of New England, Australia. His doctoral research (more...)
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Success of the lawyers' movement in Pakistan

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