Don’t kill all the lawyers!

AT FIRST it seemed like the kind of story that a sensible person would not want to touch. It is, after all, the epitome of bad taste to make cheap jokes about violence. Yet, as the story out of Lahore, Pakistan bannered an orgy of baton-wielding police whacking a gaggle of protesting lawyers, it was hard to put down.

By Tom Plate

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Published: Thu 15 Mar 2007, 8:25 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:20 AM

And as the headline in The New York Times fairly shouted: "Demonstrating Lawyers Beaten by Pakistani Police," how could you pass it up?

But to avoid cheering for the police, you had to forget a lot about lawyers you might have met in life: The one who took your friend’s life savings during an acrimonious marital spate; the oleaginous defence lawyer who saved a despicable criminal from true justice due to a technicality; the tax lawyer next door who bought a new Porsche 911 after figuring out another slippery way that an exploiting corporation could evade proper taxes. "A lawyer with his briefcase," as Godfather novelist Mario Puzo once famously wrote, "can steal more than a hundred men with guns."

But forget all about such anti-barrister propaganda, we say! Forget that when Cade in Henry VI outlines his longing for a more utopian society, Shakespeare has his companion chime in so memorably: "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers."

All of them you say? Seems a bit excessive, don’t you think?

But in Pakistan, the government seems not too far from wanting to do something like that. Baton-brandishing police lines have apparently also become most unfriendly with newspaper editors. So now, we see, the situation is getting truly serious!

In fact, concerned lawyers and allied journalists have come together to defend the need for independence of the Pakistani judiciary, protesting the government’s suspension of its top judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry —its Supreme Court chief.

They have been protesting his removal by none other than General Pervez Musharraf the general who sits atop Pakistan under the misleading rubric of civilian president.

It would appear that Justice Chaudhry has been something of an unmovable force on the issue of human rights abuses and other substantial misdeeds by the government, just as Musharraf is becoming an unstoppable force in seeking to consolidate power. He seeks to do so by defanging domestic critics in the run-up to the fall ‘election,’ at which the president-general is expected to stand again for the predicted landslide ‘electoral victory.’

And so, the unmovable judicial force has met the unstoppable political force in a clash that could well shape the future of Pakistan. The opposition party, whose leaders are mainly in exile, want to use this issue to ride Musharraf out of the presidential palace and back into the army barracks.

The general, it is true, is extraordinarily charming and delightfully civilised in his public appearances. But the stripes are beginning to stick out more and more on this tiger-toothed Urdu-speaking Mohajir (migrant). After the infamous 911 twin-tower attack, the Bush administration prevailed on Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, to align Pakistan with the US’s war on terror (as it was then and still regrettably termed).

The alacrity with which the Pakistani leader moved and the suavity of the sales job with which he sold that decision to his fellow Pakistanis had many of us in the Western media swooning. Alas, we did not listen enough to our good friends in India: They were telling us that this man, however charming, was not to be trusted.

The Musharraf question has thus slowly become a major one in international relations and Pakistan matters, big-time. It is the sixth most populous nation in the world and the second most populous Muslim one (first is Indonesia). It lives in a volatile neighbourhood with Iran (not to mention Afghanistan) to the west and China to the northeast (not to mention India, the world’s largest democracy, on the east/southeast). Pakistan is almost twice California in size and it is an Islamic Republic. No one has been able to pull off a precise headcount although a well-educated guess would suggest there are more angry anti-West militants in Pakistan than in Indonesia (and let’s not forget the former is a nuclear power).

Washington, in a surge of realpolitik, threw its money at Musharraf in 2001 the way Washington threw money at General Pinochet in Chile during the Cold War against the evil Soviet empire. But now the accounting may be beginning. It is a rare thing when lawyers and journalists, whether in Pakistan or anywhere else, band together for a good cause.

The evolution of the Pakistan judiciary, like that of any legal system in a developing country, is a key predictor of success. If you kill off all the lawyers, then the journalists and many others may be next. You can count on it.

Prof. Tom Plate, whose most recent book, Confessions of an American Media Man, has just been published, is a veteran journalist

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