Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Long March

It was clear what Pakistan's lawyers were marching for last week, but who were they marching against, asks Graham Usher in Islamabad

The Long March for Justice led by Pakistan's lawyers' movement arrived in Islamabad in the early hours of Saturday morning, six days after it had set out from cities in the country's four provinces. It was greeted by thousands of flag-waving supporters, including some in what has become the lawyers' emblematic uniform of black coats, white shirts and black ties.

Those assembled on the capital's Parade Avenue knew what the lawyers were marching for: the reinstatement of 63 senior judges sacked last year by President Pervez Musharraf under an illegal state of emergency, including Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry. But who or what were they marching against?

For some it was Musharraf, still clinging to the presidency despite the drubbing his parties received in the 18 February parliamentary elections. But for others it was the newly elected government, headed by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, which has the power to reinstate the judges but stubbornly refuses to do so.

This confusion was reflected in the debacle of the march's end. Some 50 lawyers and political activists tried to get beyond the barbed wire ringing Parade Avenue to stage a sit-in outside parliament. They were dispersed by the lawyers' leader Aitzaz Ahsan and a truckload of police. "We will fight the war at the right time and at the right place," he told the protesters. Ahsan is not only a lawyer but also a prominent leader in the PPP. The protesters accused him of sealing a "deal" with the government.

Confusion was also a mark of the march's composition. For this was no longer a protest by lawyers or even mainly by them. By far the biggest contingents were Pakistan's political parties, with pride of place going to the PPP's partner in government, the Pakistan Muslim League of another two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N).

PML-N cadre staffed 60 per cent of the stations on the long road between Lahore and Islamabad. Party activists also represented the larger part of the 20,000 who attended the rally at the close of the procession: it was Sharif, not Ahsan, who gave the keynote speech. And it was clear that the priority for the PML-N leader was less the rule of law than retribution for the General who had ousted him in a coup in 1999.

"Musharraf will not be given safe passage," he thundered before the angry, baying crowd. "He will be impeached and held accountable for his deeds. Is hanging only for politicians?" he asked rhetorically. "Hang him! Hang him!" came the dull roar of the mob.

Sharif also said that despite being a supporter of the government he "could not understand" why the PPP had tarried so long on reinstating the judges. "Although I am a coalition partner, I will always support the lawyers' demand for restoring the [pre-emergency] judiciary," he said. The message to the government was subliminal but clear: the coalition will endure on Sharif's terms or it will not endure at all.

The PPP -- whose cadre were nowhere on the Long March -- say they will restore the judges. But that this cannot be done by administrative fiat, as Sharif and the lawyers want. Reinstatement will "require a long process of constitutional reform," says PPP chairman and Bhutto widower Asif Ali Zardari.

Many in the lawyers' movement think this is a ruse: they say Zardari is being pressured by the "establishment" not to reinstate the judges out of fear that an amnesty on corruption charges granted by Musharraf last year would be annulled by a reinvigorated judiciary. Others say Zardari is concerned the army and its intelligence agencies would move to topple his government should he move to impeach Musharraf.

"We are here to tell Zardari to do the right thing, and reinstate the judges by an executive order," said Wali Mohamed Khan, a lawyer on the march. "We want to tell him parliament is sovereign. If the government acts now, the military won't move against it. If it delays, it might."

Sovereignty was a main theme of the march, along with justice and law. Two days before the marchers reached Islamabad a US air strike had killed 11 Pakistani soldiers at their base near the Afghan border. For many it was a reminder of how impotent the government had become not only in restoring the judiciary but also in defending Pakistan's borders.

One of the groups on the march was the "Families of the Disappeared", people whose relatives had been held incommunicado by the intelligence agencies in the name of "the war on terror". Chief Justice Chaudhry had compelled the agencies to surrender a 100 or so "disappeared" on the grounds of illegal abduction. Amna Janjua, whose husband has been missing since 2005, says the power that kills Pakistan's soldiers "with impunity" on the border is the same preventing the reinstatement of Chaudhry. "The US doesn't want the judges restored because of the missing persons," she says.

For Amna and the other families, the lawyers' march is a struggle for justice. But there were others in the entourage whose motives may be less pure. The sight of busloads of ex-servicemen and Jamaat Islami cadre "in support of the lawyers" brought a chill to older observers. In the past these forces had hijacked street movements about the rule of law to pave the way to martial rule. Were they playing the same game now?

Nobody knows. Only one thing was clear after the longest march in Pakistan's history: whereas last year the lawyers' protest was a simple case of justice versus dictatorship, today the road is muddier. "There are so many enemies," said a lawyer, outside parliament.

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