Lawyers vs the General

As lawyers in Pakistan take to the streets in fierce defiance of martial law, Iftikhar Chaudhry - the Chief Justice who sparked the crisis - issues a warning to Musharraf in an exclusive statement smuggled out from under house arrest
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The Independent Online

Pakistan’s ousted Chief Justice has issued a message of defiance from house arrest, accusing General Pervez Musharraf of acting illegally, and demanding the restoration of the rule of law.

In a statement passed to The Independent, Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose home has been surrounded by dozens of armed police and his phone lines cut, warned General Musharraf that he would not be deterred from launching a fresh struggle to restore the constitution and the rule of law. He also dismissed the general’s claims that the judiciary was interfering with the government’s efforts to combat terrorism.

Mr Chaudhry, who is now at the centre of the crisis in Pakistan after refusing to ratify General Musharraf’s order suspending the country’s constitution, said: “I and all the honourable judges of the Supreme Court were exercising our jurisdiction in accordance with the law and constitution and are determined to do so in the future.”

The judge, who has been a thorn in General Musharraf’s side for months and has become a rallying figure for opponents of the military regime, was sacked on Saturday after leading seven Supreme Court justices in refusing to ratify the decree that ushered in emergency rule.

In his statement he said: “The whole of the judiciary is struggling for the supremacy of the constitution.” Any actions taken by the government under the emergency provisions were illegal, he added, as was the detention of lawyers, human rights activists and members of civil society. “Their only sin is that they opposed the emergency.”

General Musharraf appeared ready to bend to international pressure yesterday when he told foreign diplomats he still intended to stand down as head of the army, and his Attorney General announced that parliamentary elections would be held within two months. With the US and UK warning that billions of pounds of aid to Pakistan could be at stake, the Attorney General, Malik Abdul Qayyum, said elections would be held before 15 January next year.

Last night, President George Bush urged President Musharraf to lift a state of emergency and hold elections but stopped short of threatening to cut off billions of dollars in US aid.

Mr Bush said he had instructed his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to convey that message to President Musharraf, who defied US pressure when he imposed emergency rule on Saturday and detained hundreds of political opponents. “We expect there to be elections as soon as possible and that the President should remove his military uniform,” Mr Bush said.

But softening his remarks, Bush also pointed out that General Musharraf has been “a strong fighter against extremists and radicals ¿ after all they tried to kill him three or four times”.

On the streets of Pakistan, General Musharraf’s determination to crush his opponents showed no sign of letting up. In Karachi and Lahore, police used tear gas and baton charges against lawyers protesting against his actions. The government said 1,800 politicians, activists and campaigners have been arrested since he imposed emergency rule, though some observers believe the true number could be double that. In Karachi journalists were also attacked. Domestic and international television channels remained off the air and police raided the presses of one of the country’s leading Urdu-language newspapers as the government continued its dual-pronged efforts to silence both the media and the legal community.

General Musharraf spent two hours yesterday speaking to ambassadors from more than 80 countries, explaining why he had suspended the constitution, sacked the seven Supreme Court judges and placed them under house arrest. He told the diplomats that the decision to impose emergency rule had been the hardest of his life. He also insisted he still planned to move towards democracy. “I am determined to execute this third stage of transition fully and I’m determined to remove my uniform once we correct these pillars in judiciary and the executive and the parliament,” he said on state-run Pakistan Television.

Unlike during his televised address on Saturday night, General Musharraf apparently referred very little to terrorism during his briefing of the diplomats and instead appeared angry and upset by what he termed the intervention of the Chief Justice.

In March, General Musharraf tried to suspend the Chief Justice for what were seen as transparently political reasons. The move backfired as lawyers mounted a spirited campaign to reinstate Mr Chaudhry, and tens of thousands of ordinary people rallied behind the ousted judge.

Confronting sliding public support, General Musharraf had little option later but to accept a ruling by the Supreme Court that the Chief Justice should be reinstated. Now, with the Supreme Court reportedly poised to rule that General Musharraf’s election victory on 6 October was invalid, it appears he decided this was |the time to get rid of the judge once and for all.

The international community has been urging the general to return to the planned “transition” towards democracy that he said he wished to see happen.