Next week, March 9-15, is Black Flag Week in Pakistan. The lawyers in Pakistan will carry black flags. And they will probably march, as they have done since November, for the reinstatement of the judiciary, for the rule of law, and for the return to the Constitution and democracy in Pakistan. The head of the lawyers, Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, has been knocking heads with the government over the rule of law during multiple dictatorships going back to Zia ul Haq and Ayub Khan. Pakistan has not had a steady democracy, but rather military dictatorships alternating with often corrupt democratic rule, for most of its history.
Brief History of the Lawyers Protests
The current military government took power in a coup in 1999 at the end of a standoff with India at the line of control, the separation between the two countries in Kashmir. Pervez Musharraf rewrote the Constitution, and ruled as both the head of the military and the president, and has staged rigged elections to maintain power. When the Constitution forbade him to run again this year, he fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudry, hoping to get a better decision on running. Ominously, he had also been apprehending and interrogating terrorism suspects, holding them without charge, and allegedly turning them over to the Americans for interrogation. The Court released many of them, and demanded that the government either bring charges against the others and arraign them in court, or release them.
The rest of the court did not go along with Musharraf’s move, and reinstated Chaudry. On November 3, 2007, Musharraf declared an Emergency, and suspended the Constitution. He placed many thousands under house arrest, he sacked the entire Supreme Court and judiciary and made signing an oath to support the rules he replaced the Constitution with a precondition to reinstatement. He created a packed court, but most of the original justices refused to sign, and many justices and barristers were placed under house arrest. As well, many human rights workers, in particular Asma Jahangir, the Pakistan Human Rights Commissioner, were put under house arrest, as were political candidates, including Benazir Bhutto. With his permission to run in hand, Musharraf scheduled elections, but there were many flaws, and many protests. Musharraf, under both domestic and international pressure, lifted the Emergency, but many remained under house arrest, especially many lawyers, including Aitzaz Ahsan, and Justice Iftikhar Chaudry (who still are).
Most of the world knows that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. This led to postponement of the elections, many realignments, and the issues of democracy, the Constitution and the judiciary coming to the fore. On February 18, opposition parties delivered a crushing defeat to Musharraf’s party, and a new government is forming around the Pakistan People’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League - N (Nawaz), and the Awami National Party in the FATA region. There was an overwhelming vote in this referendum for the return to the rule of law, to secular government, and to reinstate the Constitution and judiciary.
The Pakistani Parliament has two houses, the lower house, and the Senate. Musharraf’s people maintain a majority in the Senate, although it is weakening (6 senators broke with the majority last week bringing his lead there to 51-49). But although the incoming coalition has the two thirds majority it needs in the Lower House, it does not in the Senate, and therefore impeachment or a restoration of the 1973 Constitution (the last completely ratified) will wait until the necessary votes are there. Most observers believe this is only a matter of time as long as the pressure is on, and hopefully not too much longer. Stunningly, the government of the United States is continuing to treat Musharraf as if he has not suffered such a massive defeat. If democracy is to mean anything, the will of the people cannot be thwarted, and the U.S. support has brought criticism and suspicion of Americans in Pakistan.
Where does it go from here?
Throughout the crisis since November 3rd, people who watched the news in Pakistan have seen pictures of the lawyers, dressed in their trademark black suits, demonstrating for reinstatement of the judiciary and the return to the rule of law. These haven’t been the most peaceful of demonstrations, lawyers have been beaten, some arrested, there are allegations of harsh interrogation, in one case a lawyer’s kidneys failed during imprisonment, and tear gas. These lawyers have persevered, and continue to demonstrate.
For those paying attention, this has been a drama that is at once uncomfortably violent, and inspiring in the courage shown by the lawyers, by the people who attend the demonstrations where it is not unheard of for people to be injured or die at the hands of bombers, by the people who went out to vote, by the bloggers and press, who maintained the flow of information both internally and out of the country and shot down concocted stories and propaganda that governments use when they are in trouble. Before the elections, the new military chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, ordered the army to vacate all government positions, and to maintain a separation between the military and the government. This move was instrumental in keeping the level of vote rigging low enough for the will of the people to be heard during the February elections.
So the signs are right for a real return to democracy, for a real return to the rule of law, and for reinstatement of the Constitution and the judiciary in Pakistan. A healthy secular democracy there is an outcome that will benefit the entire world, and as we have learned in many countries over the past two decades, the real basis for a healthy democracy is respect for the Constitution, and the rule of law.
On Black Flag Week, there is an opportunity to show solidarity for the Pakistani lawyers and their struggle for the things that we in this country hold to be fundamental — civil rights, democracy, law, and a Constitution. It isn’t there yet, and it won’t be unless the pressure is kept on. Even once it comes, it will be a slow climb out of corruption and broken rule, and the country has many problems including poverty, religious militancy, and illiteracy. The new government will more than have its hands full. It will have a much easier job if the laws of the country are secure.
Please help show support for these lawyers. Please wear a black armband or other black clothing during the Black Flag Week, and please take the time to educate others on what that clothing or armband means. If the rule of law is fundamental, then it is never too unimportant to grow and strengthen it, anywhere in the world.