Restraining the Chaudhries: It Ain’t Over Till Its Over

Posted on February 1, 2008
Filed Under >Adil Najam, People, Politics
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Adil Najam

In a post, written just a few days ago, I had argued that Gen. Musharraf’s hold on power which had earlier benefited so much from the machinations of one set of Chaudhries (Shujaat and Pervaiz Elahi) continues to be undermined by the unwavering resolve of another set of Chaudhries (Iftikhar and Aitizaz Ahsan). Events since then seem to be confirming the hypothesis.

Although there may be more twists about to happen over the next many hours – including a possibility that Aitizaz may be ‘detained’ or ‘released’ again but with limited mobility, the government seemed very reluctant to let the incarcerated lawyers enjoy his freedom. ChoRa bhi, pur choRa bhi nahiN.

As The News headline put it, “Aitzaz freed, detained and freed”:

The Punjab government, in a dramatic move, revoked the fresh home detention orders against Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan who was freed after 90 days on Thursday evening. The orders were withdrawn within two hours of their issuance. Soon after the withdrawal of fresh detention orders, Aitzaz visited a local hotel to have coffee to celebrate his freedom. Aftab Ahmed, Aitzaz’s spokesman, confirmed that the provincial government had withdrawn the fresh detention orders.

Earlier, Aitzaz raised objections to the legality of the orders, which were revoked by the government after two hours. However, he signed the detention orders at around 10:10pm. Writing his objections on the detention orders, Aitzaz stated: “This is an extension beyond 90 days. Hence it is illegal without presentation of the matter before the Review Board constituted under article 10 of the Constitution. Even the attorney general has declared it illegal on TV channels”.

He said no ground for extending his detention had been mentioned in the orders and the order was illegal and a violation of Sec-24-A of the General Clauses Act. “The Home Secretary has abdicated his discretion to the federal government. This order has been passed under the dictation of the federal government. Hence it is illegal. Proper and dispassionate mind has not been applied to the issuance of this order. It is mechanical and hence illegal.” Aitzaz wrote on the orders: “Previous detention orders expired yesterday. Today I was kept in detention by use of physical force by jail staff and police. I was pushed around, manhandled and obstructed. This was use of illegal criminal force”.

He said the orders violated his fundamental right as a citizen of the country. “The desperation that chooses to restrain and detain me is itself illegal and unconstitutional.” He wrote on the orders that they were constitutionally incompetent and hence illegal and that he reserves the right to take legal action against all concerned. Earlier, Aitzaz Ahsan conveyed a message to the media that he was coming to the Lahore Press Club to hold a press conference. It was told to the media through Aitzaz’s spokesman that Aitzaz Ahsan was no more under house arrest but the SCBA president had been stopped by the police from getting out of his residence.

A large contingent of police was deployed outside the residence of Aitzaz. The police did not allow Aitzaz to move out of his residence. Despite a request by Aitzaz Ahsan that he wanted to have a little walk in Zaman Park, a few yards away from his residence, the police officials manhandled him. However, Aitzaz managed to get close to Zaman Park in the presence of a large number of reporters. Aitzaz was accompanied by a few members of the civil society, who were carrying portraits of PTI Chairman Imran Khan and rising anti-government and anti-Musharraf slogans.

Talking to reporters, Aitzaz Ahsan stated that he was now a free person because his previous detention orders had expired and the government had not served him with any fresh detention orders. He said the Home Department had issued detention orders for 30 days on December 31 and hence the orders expired on January 30. “I am supposed to be a free person today, but they (police) have been keeping me under house arrest illegal since morning,” he added.

“They have not allowed me to go to the Lahore Press Club or to have a stroll in Zamman Park, a few yards away from my residence, where I want to afresh some of my past memories about my slain leader Benazir Bhutto.” Aitzaz said the government could not put him under house arrest under Article 10 of the Constitution after keeping him in detention for 90 days. “If they want to keep me in detention, the LHC should form the Review Board which would hear me and decide further line of action,” he added.

He said the LHC would have to constitute this Review Board prior the expiry of his previous detention orders. “But the LHC has not constituted any review board, so the government under the law cannot keep me in house arrest any more. If the Home department served me any such orders, these will be illegal.” He said his previous requests seeking permission to visit Naudero to offering funeral prayers for Benazir Bhutto, offer his Eid prayers and cast his vote in Lahore High Court Bar elections were turned down by the Punjab Home Department.

When Aitzaz Ahsan was talking to the media, the officials of the Prison Department came to him and gave him a fax containing 30-day detention orders. However, Aitzaz Ahsan denied receiving the orders and termed them illegal. He warned that he would file a case against the Home Secretary and other responsible officials for issuing illegal detention orders against him. “The police and the prison department officials have given me a photocopy or fax of orders issued by the Home Department without signatures of any officer. I do not recognise the legality of these orders,” he added.

Talking to the media, Aitzaz said that the detention period of all arrested lawyers and judges including the deposed CJ had completed but they were still in illegal custody. Aitzaz strongly criticised the sitting judges of the superior judiciary for taking oath under the PCO. About the ongoing lawyer’s movement, he said it would continue till the issues were resolved. About his meeting with Attorney General Malik Qayyum, he said the people with whom he wanted to have a meeting were not given approval by the Home Department but the attorney general was allowed to meet him. “The attorney general asked me what sort of help he could offer to me. I answered that he could help me by resigning from his post in protest against the sacking of judges.”

About his daughter’s meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, he said he allowed his daughter to meet Musharraf, believing that the president would talk to her like a fatherly figure. He said Musharraf had levelled allegations against him and the deposed CJ in front of his daughter. However, he said his daughter had not accepted such allegations. Separately, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) announced that it would hold a meeting of its representatives today (Friday) outside the residence of its president Ch Aitzaz Ahsan to record its protest against his detention.

These events seem to confirm the hypothesis I had advanced earlier this week by arguing that “Gen. Musharraf considers these two Chaudhries – Iftikhar and Aitizaz – to be the biggest threat to his power“:

Even though the exiled leaders Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto (now assassinated) have been allowed back into the country, even though the emergency has been lifted, even though the media curbs have been lifted, even though Gen. Musharraf has given up his uniform… despite all of this and more, the government is still not confident enough in their own power to release Iftikhar Chaudhry and Aitizaz Ahsan from detention. Everything else the General can manage. But these two Chaudhries are seen as having enough public support and credibility to be seen to be a threat to the General’s rule if allowed out in the open.

This is an extremely telling fact. It demonstrates who the military government thinks they can “manage” and who are considered to be “unmanageable.” The urge felt by the military government to suppress the voice of the two Chaudhries demonstrates how seriously the military government takes these two and the potential support they could muster.

I am happy, however, that the second part of my hypothesis has not come true yet, and the government’s panic in this episode suggests that maybe there is still dumm, not only in these Chaudhries but also in the public movement that has evolved around them. I had argued then:

The unfortunate fact is that on this issue the government’s tactics may be working. Public interest is fickle. Public memory is short. And the overdose of other calamities is strong. Between all of this, the public attention is, and maybe has, been diverted elsewhere. One is reminded of the sheyr:

Reh gaya Mushtaq dil meiN rang-e-yaad-raftagaaN
Phool mehngay ho gaye, qubraiN purani ho gaeeN

Maybe – although I hope not – this will turn out to be so. But not just yet, it seems.

A second piece of evidence on how the government remains worried about these “Chaudhries in black coats” relates to the open letter by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry that has been circulating over the internet over the last many days. I assume our readers have already seen this, but in case not, the full text in PDF version is here (thanks to Teeth Maestro). The Chief Justice goes into detailed (in my view too detailed, because that only dignifies the charges) responses to the charges against him.

Now, according to Teeth Maestro, Gen. Musharraf has sent a letter to the American Bar Association (ABA) President, William Neukom, – PDF version here – explaining his own position against Iftikhar Chaudhry. I have not been able to independently verify the authenticity of this letter, but the arguments are familiar ones to those of us who have followed the to and fro and it does seem authentic. This, of course, is itself a response to the visit of the ABA President to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC.

According to the ABA website, the ABA President shared with the Pakistan Ambassador that the ABA “remains committed to three outcomes”:

  1. Restoration of the Pakistani constitution (as it existed before the Nov. 3 emergency decree);
  2. Reinstatement of the Supreme Court justices and high court judges who were removed from office;
  3. Release of all protesters wrongly arrested during the state of emergency.

While the ABA’s support for the rule of law in Pakistan is welcome – just as, but no more than, anyone’s support for such sentiments are welcome – if Gen. Musharaf’s letter to the ABA is in fact so then one wonders why he would go to such lengths as to write such a letter? The Bar Associations in Pakistan have been making similar arguments – and with more more relevance and claim – but have not benefited from a response!

The answer, I think, is no different from the one I had posited a few days ago:

It is interesting to ponder upon why the government would be more threatened by these two than by the mainstream political parties. It is not because these two are super-heroes. They are not. Both are flawed as all of us are. The threat they embody comes from the fact that, unlike the political parties, they have become spearheads (maybe reluctant spearheads) for a nascent movement whose goal is not as much to get a “share of the power” as it is to just see a real “restoration of democracy” and an “end to military rule” … It is the nature of this goal that makes accommodation with them much more difficult for the government than with those who, in fact, want to be accommodated. This is exactly why it is important for the government to “control” these two much more than all others.

I had ended that piece by writing that “The squashing of a judge and a lawyer is bad, but it is not catastrophic in societal terms. However, the squashing of a nation’s democratic spirit is monumental calamity.” I stand by that. But the government’s actions in these last few days has convinced me again that this spirit is not squashed. Not yet.

28 responses to “Restraining the Chaudhries: It Ain’t Over Till Its Over”

  1. Rafay Kashmiri says:

    @ Ander, bahar kartay raho, tum Aitezaz ko
    Nazron say Jo giratey ho tum Iftikhar ko

    Saaman, Ramday ka utha lay geiay hein Pir,
    thaam di WC ki kunji, mukhtar-e-kar ko

    Mak’an Gha’ib, Maki’n Ghai’b, Baser Gha’ib,
    Shikoh hoti nehein naseeb kisi Bakhtiare ko

  2. Justice should be on duty immediately

  3. I. Q. Butt says:

    Heart bleeds to see and hear news about unending imprisonment of all those who said no to authoritarianism and dictatorship.

    I dedicate following stanza from Richard Lovelace to Mr Atizaz Ehsan, Mr Ali Ahmed and Justice (retd) Tariq Mehmood particularly and all other honourable judges who have been put under forcible detention since the imposition of second martial law on the land of pure.

    Stone walls do not a Prison make,
    Nor Iron bars a Cage;
    Mindes innocent and quiet take
    That for an Hermitage;
    If I have freedom in my Love,
    And in my soule am free;
    Angels alone that sore above,
    Injoy such liberty.

    (To Althea From Prison)

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