Lawyers Against Musharraf

Why are attorneys taking to the streets in Pakistan?

Lawyers protesting in Pakistan

Lawyers demonstrating in their black suits and ties clashed with police in Pakistan on Monday, two days after Pervez Musharraf declared martial law. In Lahore, about 2,000 lawyers gathered at the high court, even as some news outlets reported 1,500 arrests of lawyers across the country. Why are attorneys leading this round of protests?

Because they want to, and they can. When Musharraf came to power in 1999, he effectively paralyzed the two major political parties that opposed him. The leaders of those groups, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League, went into exile. Other political figures were arrested, and public rallies were generally not permitted. (The gathering of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to greet Bhutto’s return in October was a rare exception.) Thus weakened, the parties couldn’t lead a mass response to Musharraf’s takeover. Lawyers, on the other hand, could circumvent some of the general’s restrictions. Since they still had to go to court, lawyers were able to use the courts as public meeting places. They also couldn’t be easily targeted as a group, since bar associations carry out necessary functions for the government, like ensuring that local political campaigns follow the rules and authenticating applicants for a national ID card. This appears to have changed, however; one eyewitness said the police were now arresting “anyone wearing the lawyer’s uniform.”

The black-suited lawyers also had the will to protest, having been incensed by Musharraf’s attacks on the constitution and the judicial branch of government. In March, he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had rankled the military by taking on cases involving dissidents and human rights activists. This intervention was received as an attack on the legal profession, and lawyers and other supporters took to the streets in the spring. Chaudhry was reinstated in July, though over the weekend he was placed under house arrest, along with other members of the Supreme Court who refused to uphold Musharraf’s provisional constitution. The military also arrested Aitzaz Ahsan, the highly regarded lawyer who successfully defended the chief justice from his suspension earlier this year.

Lawyers and the law have played a central role in politics since the beginning of Pakistan’s history. The founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a barrister—he mounted a series of successful arguments for how the 1947 separation from India would take place; at heart, Partition was a legal arrangement. And throughout the decades of Pakistan’s existence, lawyers have fought for the development of legislative and judicial institutions in opposition to military dictatorship and the existing bureaucratic rule. The idea of an independent rule of law became a rallying cry for the opposition during the early period of military rule, which lasted from the 1950s to about 1971. In 1968, lawyers demonstrated in defiance of the government’s ban on public meetings. Since no more than six people could gather without a permit at the time, lawyers protested six at a time, standing outside the courts with signs in their hands. Their actions added momentum to the mass protests that took place a few months later and eventually led to the ousting of the nation’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan.

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Explainer thanks Manan Ahmed of University of Chicago, Arnaud de Borchgrave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Husain Haqqani of Boston University, and Amit Pangya of the Henry L. Stimson Center.