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The Return of Pakistan’s Chief Justice | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry occupies a unique position in the judicial history of Pakistan. He has been removed twice from the highest judicial office and reinstated twice. He was restored to his post once through a judicial order and on March 16, 2009, he was reinstated once again through an executive order by the Pakistani Prime Minister.

Whilst riding a wave of sympathy, Chief Justice Chaudhry’s latest reinstatement came about as a result of political manoeuvring and a power struggle between the two major political parties in the country.

Chaudhry was first suspended by the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for his alleged role in destabilizing the government by blocking some major decisions, particularly the privatization of Pakistan Steels Mills.

Many people believed that his dismissal was linked to the enthusiasm he showed towards pressuring the government and intelligence agencies to investigate scores of people declared missing, many of whom were believed to be in the custody of security forces.

An eleven-member bench of the Supreme Court later restored Justice Chaudhry by rejecting President Musharraf’s attempt to remove him from the Supreme Court through the Supreme Judicial Council, which has the authority to try judges.

The situation caused further embarrassment to the then president Pervez Musharraf, who instead of accepting the Supreme Court’s decision, imposed a state of emergency in the country and dismissed Chief Justice Chaudhry once again along with 61 judges of the Supreme Court.

The situation took another dramatic turn when after the parliamentary election in February 2008, a powerful coalition government comprised of Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] and the Pakistan Muslim League [PML-N] led by Nawaz Sharif came to power in Pakistan.

However, the alliance fell apart after just a few months because of disagreements over the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The PML-N accused President Zardari of not being willing to honour his pledge to reinstate Chaudhry.

The events of the first two weeks of March 2009 clearly demonstrated that Chief Justice Chaudhry has become an icon of the rule of law in the country. Thousands of people gathered with the procession of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he announced on March 16 in Lahore that he would lead a march towards Islamabad to demand the restoration of the deposed chief justice.

“People simply see him as a symbol of freedom and the rule of law,” said Athar Minallah, a Supreme Court lawyer in Pakistan who has acted as a spokesman for Chief Justice Chaudhry over the past two years.

According to a senior political analyst it was his defiance against the orders of a powerful military ruler in Pakistan that made Justice Chaudhry an icon for the people of Pakistan. However, he was certainly not the first man in Pakistan’s history to do so. There is a long list of political radicals who challenged the authority of military generals who had ruled Pakistan for more than 31 years out of its 60-year existence.

But there is another quality that is unique to Chief Justice Chaudhry that pushed his popularity in Pakistan through the roof in the past two years. He is part of Pakistan’s docile judiciary, which has always submitted to whoever is in power in Islamabad and especially to the military generals whenever they had staged a coup.

On March 9, 2007, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf summoned Chief Justice Chaudhry to his office in the President’s House and asked him to resign or face charges of misconduct and misuse of authority.

President Musharraf showed Justice Chaudhry alleged evidence that Chaudry had misused his authority in an attempt to secure a lucrative government job for his son, Arslan Chaudhry. The list of charges also included allegations that Justice Chaudhry forced the Ministry of Finance to provide him with a luxurious Mercedes car and helicopter for transportation.

Around the same time, the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Chaudhry was hearing a special case related to hundreds of “missing persons” who had been picked up by Pakistani intelligence agencies and police and were accused of having links with Al Qaeda or other local terrorist groups. These “missing persons” as they came to be known in Pakistan’s media, were in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence services and police without proper legal cases being brought against them.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry came down hard on the intelligence agencies for bypassing the law and “kidnapping” hundreds of people, some of whom had been handed over to foreign countries, especially the United States, without resorting to the proper legal process as required under Pakistani law. Justice Chaudhry’s attacks on the government and intelligence agencies were causing huge embarrassment to former President Musharraf.

In a one-on-one meeting with the Pakistani president, Chief Justice Chaudhry refused to resign and challenged General (retired) Musharraf to put him on trial. General Musharraf instead brought in his three intelligence chiefs – the chief of Military Intelligence, the chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the chief of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) – to the Presidential office and asked them to force Justice Chaudhry to resign. By his own account, Justice Chaudhry told General (retired) Musharraf after this three-hour meeting that he would not resign no matter what.

Justice Chaudhry’s ordeal began immediately after the meeting. He was taken to his residence by force and placed under house arrest. The telephone, television cable and internet were all disconnected and he was cut off from the outside world. His family including his wife and children were also detained with him.

In the mean time former President Musharraf asked the Supreme Judicial Council to try Justice Chaudhry on charges of corruption and misuse of authority. Up until that point, this drama had been confined to the corridors of power and was hidden from public eye. Everything was happening behind closed doors.

On the first day of his appearance before the Supreme Judicial Council, Justice Chaudhry, deprived of his official car, started his journey towards the Supreme Court on foot.

“Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry came out of his residence in Islamabad and he wanted to go to the Supreme Court to attend the proceedings on foot as his official cars had been taken away from him. But the police didn’t allow this to happen and forced him into a police vehicle,” said Athar Minallah, a senior Supreme Court lawyer.

The situation began to attract the attention of Pakistani people across the country. “The scenes of an ordinary policeman dragging the Chief Justice of Pakistan by the hair and forcing him into a car were broadcast live on private news channels and were shocking for the people of Pakistan to say the least,” said Rana Qaiser, editor of the Daily Times, a leading English language newspaper.

A small group of lawyers, which had gathered outside the Supreme Court building after watching Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s humiliation at the hands of a policeman on television screens, snatched him from the clutches of policemen when he reached the Supreme Court.

“This daring effort by a small group of lawyers snowballed into a powerful lawyers’ movement which proved to be the most persistent political movement in the history of Pakistan,” said Rana. Within a matter of days, the lawyers’ movement attracted support from various parts of society as young students and political activists fought against Musharraf’s security apparatus in the streets of Islamabad.

Apart from the defiance that he has demonstrated over the past two years, Justice Chaudhry has had a tumultuous career as a judge. He was appointed chief justice of Pakistan by former President Pervez Musharraf in May 2005. Justice Chaudhry was also appointed judge of the Supreme Court by President Pervez Musharraf just a few months Musharraf’s coup in October 1999. He served as a judge at the Supreme Court for five years in which he supported the military takeover led by General Musharraf through a court verdict. Even today, his critics accuse him of first supporting a military dictator and then acting as the country’s hero to the rule of law.

Until recently, the PPP leaders also accused him of being the most politicized judge in the history of Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari has repeatedly said that a judge who has been politicized cannot dispense justice. One of the bases of this allegation is the support that Chief Justice Chaudhry received from the political activists over the past two years. Activists for both the PPP and PML-N attended rallies in support of Chief Justice Chaudhry in large numbers. “He [Chaudhry] was not politicized when the PPP was supporting him; when other political parties began supporting him the PPP leaders began to level this allegation against him,” said Imran Khan who is at the forefront of the lawyer’s movement.

Political polemics apart, Justice Chaudhry has remained extremely cautious in his public statements and speeches over the past two months. “He hasn’t uttered a single word on politics over the past two years and the only meeting he had with any political leader was with Asif Ali Zardari to give his condolences for the death of Benazir Bhutto,” said Rana Qaiser. “There is a very strong impression that he has become a political figure because of the support he received from political parties, but he didn’t invite any political party to support him.”

According to British judicial traditions that are followed by Pakistan’s judiciary, a judge should not have any interaction with the general public and should distance himself from any kind of controversy. However, the situation with Chief Justice Chaudhry is quite the opposite; he has been at the centre of every political controversy in the country over past two years. “These political controversies will remain with him and will make it difficult for him to act as an arbiter in political conflicts,” said a senior Supreme Court lawyer who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity and who opposed the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry.

Regardless of the outcome of past controversies, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry now seems determined to keep out of trouble. “He is not an adventurer and he will provide stability to the democratic institutions,” said Athar Minallah. “Over the past two years, he has seen the miseries of the people of Pakistan and he believes that Pakistan needs stability,” he said.

After the dismissal of 61 judges of the Supreme Court, former President Pervez Musharraf personally chose new figures to be judges. These figures pledged allegiance to General Musharraf by swearing on a legal document – the Provision Constitutional Order (PCO) – which was promulgated by Musharraf in place of Pakistan’s constitution as the supreme law of the land.

When the PPP government appointed a number of judges to the Supreme Court, it was strongly criticised by opposition political parties that claimed its choices were bias.

Justice (Retired) Tariq Mehmood, a leader of the lawyers’ movement, said, “There are a lot of bad people who have entered the judiciary by former President Musharraf and the current government. Now it is very difficult to remove them from the bench. The biggest question for the Chief Justice is how to control these elements.”

Athar Minalullah believes that the recently reinstated Chief Justice will not do anything that could potentially lead to confrontation with the government. “Chief Justice Chaudhry firmly believes that Pakistan needs stability,” Athar told Asharq Al-Awsat. “The issue of Musharraf’s judges is an issue for parliament to deal with.”