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Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails

Irfan Husain
19 March 2007

Pervez Musharraf's beleaguered government has begun a desperate attempt to defuse the crisis that the president himself precipitated on 9 March 2007 by suspending the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Around him is a country in uproar over this peremptory use of executive power, with lawyers and opposition activists and leaders battling the police outside courts in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

The crisis comes at an already difficult time for Musharraf. He faces major problems on the Afghan border, mounting American pressure to crack down on Islamic extremists, and tricky elections to manoeuvre by the end of 2006 (as well as the shock defeat of one of Pakistan's prominent national symbols, its cricket team, in the world cup). In such circumstances, the last thing Musharraf needs is a constitutional predicament. But the emergency meeting of cabinet ministers, political allies, governors and state ministers he assembled on 18 March is ample evidence that this is what his peremptory action has created.

Musharraf may enjoy vast powers and can still rely on the army's support, but there remain limits to what he can and cannot do. Even such a powerful military dictator cannot effectively sack the chief justice of the supreme court with impunity. True, Pakistan's higher judiciary has not exactly covered itself with glory over the years, but Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has gained a lot of personal respect for his refusal to toe the official line.

In taking a number of decisions that have embarrassed the government, Chaudhry has broken with the tradition of predictable pro-establishment judgments established by his recent predecessors. President Musharraf and his prime minister Shaukat Aziz have been smarting from his tough, independent and pro-active stance; in a letter from a barrister complaining about the chief justice, which had been widely circulated on the internet, they seized on an opportunity to act against him.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan"
(29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice"
(6 November 2006)

"Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"
(6 December 2006)

"Sri Lanka: giving war a chance"
(8 February 2007)

The pretext

This letter - more accurately a litany of charges - was penned by a lawyer (and regular TV presenter) Naeem Bukhari. Among his accusations were that Chaudhry regularly humiliated lawyers who appeared before him, often threatening them with contempt proceedings; and, apart from such alleged misdeeds in court, that he misused his authority to arrange for his son's appointment to the police service after twice failing the English component of the entrance exam. In a country where the abuse of power (including in the form of nepotism) is the norm, such accusations seem scarcely sufficient grounds to warrant the extreme action initiated by the government.

The government clearly hoped that Iftikhar Chaudhry would buckle under accumulating pressure and resign, thus sparing the government the embarrassment of taking the matter to the supreme judicial council (SJC) in an open hearing. When it did order the SJC to initiate review proceedings, signs of judicial dissent were quick to emerge; the chief justice of the Sindh high court, a member of the SJC, formally asked to be excused from sitting on the council.

On 9 March, the chief justice was summoned to Army House by Musharraf, and allegedly given a dressing-down in Shaukat Aziz's presence. He was kept there for five hours before being allowed to return home. There, his telephone and internet connection had been disconnected, and security agencies prevented visitors from seeing him or his family. A political decision of dubious legality had been taken, in which a government that felt able to strip the chief justice of his powers and virtually place him under house arrest did not feel it necessary to produce a charge-sheet for public scrutiny.

The real calculation

Even for Pakistan, this bizarre chain of events is startling. Musharraf's extreme step is a measure of how much the chief justice's recent judgments and directives had been hurting the government. Yet the president's action cannot be attributed to considerations of alleged legal malpractice alone. Rather, three further factors - security, economic and political - must be taken into account.

The first is the recent phenomenon of the "disappeared", which is central to this whole drama. Over the last year, hundreds of political activists as well as ordinary people have been kidnapped by intelligence agencies and locked up in secret prisons and safe houses across the country. Many are alleged to have been tortured.

After receiving no information or satisfaction from the police and the lower courts, relatives of the victims appealed to the chief justice. To everyone's surprise, Chaudhry began holding regular hearings that subjected the behaviour of the intelligence agencies to scrutiny in the dock. As a result of his intervention, around a score of the "disappeared" were released. Other families, encouraged by this outcome, thronged to the supreme court.

Those held in illegal custody had been picked up as a part of an attempt to crack down on dissent. The majority were young Baluchis (Balochis) alleged to be members of the Baluch Liberation Army. This shadowy organisation has been targeting gas pipelines, electricity pylons and railway tracks in a well-armed separatist campaign. The army has retaliated by locking up hundreds of young men even remotely suspected of supporting this movement. Similarly, Pashtun tribesmen thought to be helping the Taliban and al-Qaida have been incarcerated without charges.

Musharraf's problem in this two-front war is that without evidence of their involvement, his agencies cannot legally hold activists for long. Their frustration has led them to resort to the expedient of kidnapping, and even allegedly torturing, suspects. The supreme court's intervention has threatened to undo this covert policy.

The second reason for Chaudhry's unpopularity in Islamabad's corridors of power was his decision to veto the major Pakistan Steel Mills privatisation in August 2006. This is Pakistan's biggest public-sector industry, and its sale was closely monitored by the prime minister. When an unsuccessful bidder took the matter to the supreme court, it ruled that the process had not been sufficiently transparent, and had been carried out with "indecent haste". This was a direct rebuff to Shaukat Aziz, and one that must have stung deeply.

The third factor in helping explain the suspension is political calculation: the chief justice had another four years to go in office, while Musharraf himself expects to extract another five-year term from the assembly before it is dissolved by the end of 2006. The thought of relying on someone like Iftikhar Chaudhry to sanction a victory for Musharraf's allies in the forthcoming national and provincial elections, and of coexisting with such an independent chief justice for most of his next presidential term, must seem anathema to the president's military mind.

The spark of revolt

Musharraf could not have expected the hostile reaction his action has generated. Lawyers are up in arms, and have been boycotting courts across the country. There have been violent daily clashes between lawyers and policemen. Newspapers and private TV channels are lambasting the government. A spectacularly ill-judged raid by police on the office of a private television station on 16 March - for which Musharraf felt obliged to apologise - is continuing to backfire on the government. Opposition parties have seized the opportunity to galvanise civil society against the present dispensation. The senior judge Jawad Khawaja followed a lower-court judge by resigning on 19 March. Foreign governments, including the United States, are appalled just at a time when Democrats in Washington are pressing Musharraf for democratic reforms.

Pervez Musharraf has made for himself a bed of nails. But the whole sorry episode reflects more than the arbitrariness and unaccountability of power he wields. It highlights too the fragility of Pakistan's institutions. It is difficult to see how the government can wriggle out of this self-created crisis.

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