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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Pakistani lawyers suffering for their cause

|Written By Mohsin Abbas
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Pakistani lawyers suffering for their cause
KARACHI: November 2005 - Pakistani policemen arrest the lawyers who were protesting the imposition of emergency rule in the country. Photo by SANA News Wire

House arrests, torture, loss of clients, and fearful families are all problems faced by lawyers and judges who are standing up for their beliefs.

  

Unprecedented movement of the legal fraternity for the independence of judiciary in Pakistan is still a cherished but elusive goal. On July 20, 2007, the ousted chief justice of Pakistan was restored and all democratic forces in the country celebrated it as victory. But the gains of the movement were short-lived. On Nov. 3, 2007, President Pervez Musharraf clamped a state of emergency on the country and chucked out all the independent judges through a Provisional Constitution Order (PCO). The struggle started again and it is a long way to go.


More than 6,000 lawyers across Pakistan were arrested during the six-week state of emergency; many were physically attacked by policemen. The recent increase in life-threatening incidents and suicidal bombings — for instance, the bomb blast killing 26 at the main gate of the Provincial High Court of Lahore — has frightened lawyers and their families. The lawyers who repelled governmental pressures just months ago are looking helpless before the shaking requests of their innocent children who don’t want their lawyer fathers to join the protest against the ruthless Musharraf government. 

Lahore November 2005: Pakistani Police beating a lawyer who was protesting during a demonstration at Lahore High Court building. Photo by SANA News Wire.

  “We will have to change and adopt some safe but effective mode of protesting against the government”, says Tariq Awan, 43, a lawyer and father of five. Awan mostly practises in the courts of Sangla Hill, a small city 75 kilometers from Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab province. He and 27 of his colleagues were arrested on Nov. 5 from outside the District Bar Nankana Sahib. About 400 policemen attacked and beat them on the street.

All of them were transferred overnight to a jail 300 kilometers away from their homes, where they were stripped naked and tortured together. They weren’t released for a month.


“[The police] taunted us ‘criminal’ lawyers,” says Awan. He was re-arrested in a 4-a.m. police raid at his home immediately after he returned from his one-month detention — this time right before the very eyes of his family. Eleven policemen climbed up the short walls of his house, pointed guns toward him, and took him with them. “I will never forget that moment when the policemen punched and kicked me as [a] helpless soul before my family, who became terrified, freaked, and mum at the barbaric treatment of the police, meted out in the very middle of my own house.”


This second arrest was traumatic for his family. His children, who once were very shining and promising students, suffered psychologically after witnessing the humiliation, torture, and kidnapping of their father.


“We are ready to face everything with hope and strength, but escalating incidents of bombing is mounting pressures on us from within our own families. It looks that suicidal bombing is resulting to indirectly fade the strength of the legal fraternity’s movement against unconstitutional steps of Musharraf,” says Awan.


“The government has not got a human heart and it may kill you too, so please, papa, don’t go outside, as we can survive without food but not without you,” insistently asked Awan’s seven-year-old son.


Awan used to earn 100,000 rupees (Cdn$2,000) and was the only income for his family of five children, his wife, and mother. When he was locked up in jail, neighbours raised money and put groceries at the door for his family.


“I feel like we are living in a country where law of jungle prevails,” commented Awan. “We are being punished just because we are asking for rule of law and a stop of abuse of human rights.” Having witnessed marshal laws previously, Awan also called this recent marshal law the worst of all. “Civil and law-abiding people were tortured, killed, and punished as if they had been dacoits and burglars in the medieval times.”


The senior judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif was also confined to his home. This target of Musharraf’s emergency rule is facing acute financial crisis. While under house arrest, himself and other judges are neither getting a stipend or their usual salaries. “I have removed light bulbs and illuminations from my home to reduce the expenses that I am paying from my little left savings. I have restrained participating in family functions, consumed less food, and borne cold weather without proper heat in my house,” told Sharif.


Aware of the treatment in these circumstances, Sharif planned not to live in his official government residence. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the deposed chief justice of Pakistan, who is also currently under house arrest, was ordered to evacuate his residence recently. He refused to evacuate and says he had no other place to live. Chaudhry was not allowed to leave his home for the Muslim holiday prayer and other Friday prayers, even with an escort. Some of the deposed judges have received government notices to pay 65,000 rupees ($1,200) per month for the residences where they lived before. Two of Sharif’s colleagues were ordered to leave their homes but these judges had no place to go.

Pakistani suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry waves to supporters and lawyers upon his arrival at the Lahore High Court in Lahore, May 6, 2007. Photo by SANA News Wire.

Sharif says that when soldiers came to evacuate the judges from their government residences they even didn’t even let them change out of sleeping clothes — even when they came in the middle of the night.


Sharif is also very worried about his lawyer friends and their families living in the northern province Sarhad, where bread prices had gone up after the recent crisis. He described that one roti was 18 rupees (40 cents), while in other parts of country it was five rupees; one naan was 10 rupees; and the cooking oil was 115 rupees.

These prices are far from the reach of ordinary citizens. “[The] government has put people in a new situation by doing this artificial shortage of flour and many other daily needs.”


Sharif, one of the most respected judges in the country, had always visited his mother’s grave on a daily basis. Now, under house arrest, he was not allowed to visit there at all. “Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has alarmed people that there will be another attack on a political figure. The public have lost trust in the government,” says Sharif.


Looking at the future of Pakistan, Sharif says as long as Musharraf is in power, the judges will not be restored. “There is a hope if Musharraf goes, or if election brings into parliament Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, Muslim League (N). Then, they might pass an act against illegal PCO and restore the judges.”


He believes the current government is fearful of lawyers who are willing to venture out and address lawyers or bar councils. “If Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is restored, he will throw this government out very easily,” hopes Sharif.


Lawyers had been boycotting the lower courts once a week, and there was a complete boycott of the judges who took oath under the  PCO, high courts, and Supreme Court. But, in part due to the hardships suffered by many lawyers since Jan. 15, the Pakistan Bar Council announced to observe full-day courts boycott on every Thursday and one-hour boycott daily throughout the week.


“The lawyers are planning a new movement,” says Choudhry Ramzan, a member of PBC. Ramzan was arrested with 3,000 others on the night of Nov. 3 last year when Musharraf imposed the emergency law.


Speaking to Canadian Lawyer from the northern city of Peshawar, Ramzan recalls reading the history books about the sacrifices of the people of Pakistan for their independence 60 years ago. He now feels the country is in a similar situation. Ramzan was leading a rally in the Lahore High Court building when about 1,000 lawyers were attacked by police, then tortured publicly, arrested, and detained for up to three months, facing terrorism charges. The punishment for these charges in Pakistan is the death penalty or lifetime imprisonment.


“Even some people at the age of 75 were also arrested and tortured. We did not even go on the road; we were attacked with tear gas shelling, beaten, and then locked up for two days in police cells,” he says. “We were kept hungry, had no access to medicines, were forced to drink dirty water, and had to sleep on cold cement floors in the cold nights. We were also stripped early in the morning and were humiliated by police constables.


“If we refused the strip search, we would be tortured. Once we were attacked by 50 policemen within the jail that injured many of the lawyers badly,” he continues. “Many of us became very ill after not having clean food and water in the notorious unhygienic postal jail, Bahawalpur, in the province of Punjab.”


Remembering his detention, Ramzan says they were not allowed to meet or receive visitors and had no rights to appear in the courts for bail hearings. They were remanded while locked up in the police vans. Many times they were kept more than 36 hours in a police van 10 feet by four feet wide and five feet high. Even after having bail orders many of these lawyers were kept locked up for 20 days and were ordered re-arrested before they even got released from these vans.


“The judges who took oath under PCO act were taking orders from the secret service agencies,” told Ramzan. He doesn’t see any positive developments if Musharraf remains in power and believes that people will not vote for his party during the Feb. 18 elections. It’s only possible through rigging the election that this party ever wins.


Talking about the financial situation of the lawyers on strike, he says they are going through tough times. Many of their clients are asking for fee refunds and leaving these lawyers to go to the two or three per cent of lawyers who are working with new judges, who most consider illegitimate. “We are not getting new clients. Only two per cent of the lawyers and government prosecutors/lawyers are appearing in the courts,” he adds.

A lawyer in the District Court in the capital city of Islamabad. In a large square, each law office has a small space to attend its clients, while the courts themselves are located in buildings around the square. Photo by SANA News Wire.
 

Many of these lawyers were released after the constitution was restored in December last year, and it is very hard for them to pay back the fees to their clients in this situation when they don’t even have money for their own survival. “People are locked up in jails and we want their cases to be solved. We are also facing public pressure too,” says Ramzan.


“Our families — women, kids — are pressuring us to stop but we are ready to take as much pain and sacrifices to get democracy for the nation, so our coming generations can see democracy in this country and get freedom from dictatorship.”


Former prime minister Bhutto’s assassination has dramatically affected the lawyers’ movement. “We are very sad for Bhutto’s assassination but her deal with Musharraf affected our movement, otherwise we were about to send [Musharraf] home,” says Ramzan. “The lawyers abroad were very supportive. They built a lot of pressure on the Pakistani government to release many of us. Foreign media and human rights organizations played a vital role to release us from those stinky cells.”


Supreme Court Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday, who restored the ousted chief justice of Pakistan on July 20, 2007, and some other judges are still not allowed to leave their homes. When I called Ramday for an interview, his cell phones were jammed. His landline was open but was being intercepted all the time.


“I am 63 today and will always remember this birthday under arrest,” says Ramday, who is spending most of his time while under house arrest reading and writing. “We certainly have made our contribution towards democracy and restoration of chief justice.


“I cannot leave my house and visitors are not easily allowed to come to my home. Even I am not given my salary or my pension. I am not even allowed to do anything else,” says the soft-spoken Ramday.


He calls the situation “very bad,” saying he doesn’t know how to survive. He notes he’s allowed to receive groceries, “but we need money to buy the groceries.


“If I could go outside, I would be able to think of some other way to make a living,” says the frustrated Ramday, who is living with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. For the moment, his daughter is in hospital and he cannot even visit her.


When asked about his historical decision to restore ousted chief justice last year, Ramday answered with glee. “I am very proud of that judgment but currently I have no contact with chief justice or any other judges.


“Lawyers abroad have made very strong request for restoration of judges. I saw over media that in U.S.A., Canada, and many other countries, lawyers and even members of civil societies supported the cause. I really salute them all. They raised their voice very well. Whatever has happened on Nov. 3, even until today, they are standing up for us. Even media have voiced us very well. Media have played a very effective and strong role. I really admire their contribution,” adds Ramday.


In Pakistan, it’s nothing new to depose Supreme Court judges during military rule. But the struggle of deposed judges, the lawyers’ boycott to restore, and the strong reactions against PCO have written a new chapter in history. “The public is very worried since courts remain mostly closed, but we can’t get justice from courts chaired by unlawful judges appointed by unlawful authority of Musharraf,” says Awan.


The recent shortage of water, electricity, and flour in the country, which lawyers call a conspiracy of Musharraf’s government, is also affecting the lawyers’ movement. Lawyers believe the government wants to distract the people’s attention from the lawyers’ message by causing problems for everyone.


Families are traumatized to see frequent bomb blasts targeting their loved ones, hence pressurizing the lawyers and activists to quit. A recent blast at the Lahore High Courts took 26 lives, but thousands of other in the rally of lawyers were lucky to be safe. More than 100 people have been killed as a result of bomb blasts during lawyer rallies. “Even there is a wave of terror to kill human beings like mad dogs during these blasts. The recent bomb blasts in court areas can affect our movement majorly, because the government wants to scare us by these blasts, but we will keep this movement,” Awan says firmly.


The lawyers are not appearing in the high and apex courts. They still work before the subordinate courts of the provinces but only for urgent matters such as bail matters. Trials have been totally suspended. Lawyers have been protesting for the past 10 months. And even those who were never part of lawyer organizations participated in this movement. It started from March last year.


Lawyer leaders Aitaz Ahsan and Ali Ahmed Kurd, and retired justice Tariq Mehmood have been locked up since Nov. 3 last year. Many of these deposed judges are using their savings from their earnings as lawyers.

Protesting lawyers — senior, junior, male, female — have been suffering major economical difficulties because of continuous strikes, but the majority of the lawyers believe that they are sacrificing for a worthwhile cause.

These lawyers want a free judiciary in Pakistan that will benefit ordinary citizens more than themselves.


Mohsin Abbas is Toronto-based journalist and filmmaker. He can be reached at abbasmohsin@gmail.com

All photos by SANA News Wire.

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