Six years ago, top generals harassed a chief justice and forced him to quit. The lawyers and media found in him a perfect hero against the dictator of the time.
Lateef Khosa was hit with a baton and pictures showed the blood from his head trickling down his neck. Ali Ahmed Kurd was thrashed by intelligence men. Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan embarked on the longest journey of his life in the driving seat.
It was all about chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The cities were echoing with slogans, and many saw a revolution in the making.
[quote]The cities were echoing with slogans, and many saw a revolution in the making[/quote]
By 2013, the balloon has deflated. The goals are unmet and the hopes have dampened. Where is Aitzaz? Kurd? Khosa? Athar Minallah? Asma Jehagir? All the other icons of lawyers movement?
A day before March 9, 2007, when the chief justice was forced to quit, a majority of lawyers was upset with him. “General Musharraf was a fool. Had he just referred a disqualification reference against him to the Supreme Judicial Council, the lawyers would vouch for his dismissal,” said former Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Ali Ahmed Kurd.
But the commando decided to show his muscles. The move backfired. The lawyers united, encouraged by the anti-Musharraf media. The chief justice was not the idol to worship, but they found a common enemy – General Musharraf.
What really went wrong between General Musharraf and Chief Justice Chaudhry? A close aide of the general says the confrontation began after the apex court delivered its verdict against the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills.
“A few days before the verdict, then prime minister Shaukat Aziz called on the president. He warned of a doomsday scenario for the economy if the apex court stopped the privatization process,” he said.
The president’s worries were genuine. He had given the mandate to handle the economy to his prime minister. The president dialed some numbers and held some meetings. He received an assurance that the apex court would not cancel the privatization of the steel mills or of any other public sector entities on the list.
When the decision came out, General Musharraf was flabbergasted. So was the prime minister. Advisors warned General Musharraf against trusting the chief justice again, especially in the case of his two offices. What followed is well known.
After his final restoration in March 2009 because of intervention by Musharraf’s successor Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the chief justice emerged as the most powerful public figure in Pakistan. It was the beginning of an era of popular justice, which many senior lawyers and jurists did not agree with. “The job of a judge or a court is to give a verdict on the basis of available facts and law books. It is not their job to keep in mind the national or public interest. That is the job of the elected representatives,” SCBA president Kamran Murtaza said. Former chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah has made a similar argument in his autobiography Law Courts in a Glass House.
A week before Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s retirement, the police beat up a group of lawyers protesting outside the Supreme Court building. They had come all the way from Faisalabad for a protest against the Lahore High Court.
“I hold the Supreme Court registrar responsible for that sorry incident,” the SCBA president said. “He told me he was in Lahore. But he could have asked the deputy registrar to meet the leaders of the protesting lawyers. After the incident, the Sindh High Court Bar Association cancelled their farewell dinner to the chief justice in protest. And the SCBA had to support the decision.”
Justice (r) Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui spoke highly of the chief justice and the judicial activism he started. He said the credibility of the court improved as it challenged several holy cows. He agreed however that the performance of the lower courts left much to be desired.
The Supreme Court made some landmark decisions and heard many important cases during the tenure of the outgoing chief justice. Under stern court orders, the PML-N government produced before the court, after much reluctance, a number of missing persons. The apex court managed to recover billions of rupees siphoned off in the NICL and OGRA scandals. The court took up several cases of public importance including the price of sugar, flour and petroleum products and electricity and gas tariffs. However, despite many excruciating observations, the general public failed to get any relief.
The first prime minister of the People’s Party government, Yousaf Raza Gilani, remained under constant pressure from the court to request Swiss authorities to resume money-laundering proceedings against then president Asif Zardari. When the prime minister refused to toe the line, he was found guilty of contempt of court and sent home. Raja Pervez Ashraf, his successor, did write a letter to Swiss authorities but was haunted by allegations of corruption.
Former Punjab governor Lateef Khosa said the expectations of the lawyers and the general public were not fulfilled. “Perhaps the glare of the media eclipsed the real issues and targets which must have been met.”
Kurd said it was a fact that the chief justice (then a judge) was part of the bench that validated the October 1999 military coup. The same bench allowed Gen Musharraf to stay for three years and amend the Constitution. The case of the alleged corruption of Arsalan Iftikhar, the chief justice’s son, has also been buried under the files, he said.
And these concerns show that unlike clever sportsmen who leave the field at the zenith of their career, the chief justice is retiring after losing many of his friends and admirers.
Shahzad Raza is a journalist based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shahzadrez