Pakistani lawyers go from heroes to 'gangsters'

 

Lahore, Pakistan

The young police inspector came to court to present evidence in a beating case. He left with his head and lip bloodied and his uniform torn — assaulted, he said, by a gang of black-suited assailants.

The notorious lawyers of Lahore had struck again, police and witnesses said. It was chalked up as yet another episode of violence by lawyers that has become common here in this seat of justice in eastern Pakistan, where cases from throughout Punjab province are heard.

In a nation where the rule of law is already fragile on many levels, police officials, judges, litigants and witnesses say they have become increasingly fearful of marauding lawyers in their trademark black pants, coats and ties.

"If police officers don't submit to their pressure, they abuse and beat them," said Sadaqat Ullah, the 28-year-old police investigator who alleged that a group of lawyers pummeled him in late September because he refused to share a confidential hospital report with an attorney in the original assault case. "They behave like gangsters."

Lawyers at the site that day say that only harsh words were exchanged; the provincial bar council is investigating. But at least 15 episodes of "hooliganism" and "high-handedness," as the media and victims describe them, by lawyers have been reported this year, undermining the heroic reputation they gained from their role in a constitutional standoff that began five years ago.

In a country where militants rule large swaths of territory, corruption is endemic and people are "disappeared" by security agencies, the "black coats" emerged as defenders of the rule of law after then-President Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution, arrested political foes and fired judges. The world beheld incongruous images of men in suits braving police lines and tear gas in the capital, Islamabad, to demand the reinstatement of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

Lahore was the epicenter of the 2007-09 "Black Revolution," as it is known. In one raid on the High Court Bar Association, police arrested more than 800 lawyers involved in the movement for judicial independence.

In the end, Musharraf lost power and Chaudhry went on to become a controversial one-man powerhouse who regularly calls to account top elected leaders and army generals for alleged abuses of power. But since those heady days, critics say, lawyers' arrogance and aggressiveness have wiped out any goodwill they had generated.

"Storm troopers," Ayaz Amir, a politician and commentator, called them in a June column. "Time was when lawyers did most of their arguing with their tongues. Now they seem to do a better job with their fists."

"It's true. We should mend our behavior," Zulfiqar Ali, president of the Lahore Bar Association, said sheepishly in an interview. He attributed the violence to a lack of emphasis on ethics and courtroom conduct in law schools.

He said the association, which has about 20,000 members, has initiated weekly lectures aimed at improving decorum and overall competence.

"We should train them," said Ali, who has practiced for 24 years. "They are our younger brothers and sisters."

Judges, in particular, say lawyers have become drunk on power, unafraid to curse judicial officers, drag them from their courtrooms and padlock the doors.

"Judges are terrified against this mob," said Ahmed Saeed, a judge who beaned a lawyer with a paperweight last year in his Lahore courtroom, infuriated by what he called the attorney's abusive language. Saeed has since been reassigned.

Another judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he no longer wanted to live in fear of the black coats in Lahore and welcomed reassignment to a district more than 150 miles away.

Courthouse violence appears infrequent elsewhere, but in Lahore, on a single day in May, three courtroom brawls were reported in the media. They included the pummeling of police inspector Zohaib Awan, 32, who said he had come to court to testify in a property dispute involving a lawyer.

"I think even the government and the higher-ups are afraid of lawyers," Awan said. "No politician or bureaucracy or judiciary is able to stop this hooliganism."

Many lawyers in Pakistan scrabble and toil for cases but earn little: $150 a month is the average in Lahore, a metropolis of more than 10 million. (The average monthly income in Pakistan is variously estimated at $60 to $100.)

Lawyers here gather in "offices" next to the courthouse that consist of an open-air warren of rickety chairs, battered desks and crumbling piles of manila-jacketed case files.

In courtrooms, lawyers crowd insistently in front of the bench as opposed to sitting quietly at their places until the judge instructs them to appear.

Throughout Pakistan, neither the police, nor the lawyers, nor the courts — particularly the lower courts — are held in high regard. Police officers are poorly paid and augment their income by demanding payoffs to investigate crimes. The justice system is an ineffectual morass in which cases often wind on interminably with delay after delay. People complain of judges having their hands out, too.

But lawyers seem to be accorded a special measure of scorn: Many banks refuse to give them loans, and landlords won't rent them property, fearful that the pettifoggers will find loopholes to worm out of making payments. (Journalists also are on the bankers' blacklist because media companies are notorious for not paying their salaries for months.)

Because nearly 4,000 police officers attend the court proceedings in Lahore every day, some clashes are to be expected, said Sheik Muhammad Aamer, a law librarian.

"Frictions start at the police stations and lead to shouting matches, and in court those frictions continue," he said. "There is fault on both sides."

Ahmed Nawaz, a deputy police superintendent in Lahore, said it was rare three or four years ago to arrest lawyers for violence against witnesses, police or judges. "Now they obstruct justice by all means," he said. "It's unfortunate. It was once a noble profession."

Loutish lawyers do face disciplinary proceedings: In July, the Punjab Bar Council stripped seven of them of their licenses.

The offense: They ransacked the offices of the council, in a fracas that began over a lawyer who allegedly slapped a female colleague.

Ali, the Lahore bar president, said lawyers — whatever their faults — continue to protect Pakistan's nascent democracy. He accused the media of overemphasizing and sensationalizing incidents of violence involving lawyers.

"We've had only one episode of an advocate throwing his shoes at the judge," he noted with some pride. "His license was revoked."

---

Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Dogar in Lahore, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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