Aitzaz Ahsan: A Lawyer who turned a Judge into a National Cause
A Lawyer Who Turned a Judge Into a National Cause
By SOMINI SENGUPTA; New York; July 28, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 25 — In the hands of a lesser political bloodhound, the matter might have been simply a court case to decide the fate of the chief justice of Pakistan.
In the hands of Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the country’s best known lawyer-politicians, the case of the chief justice was rendered a case of justice under military rule. What could have been no more than a polite exchange of arcane constitutional arguments became over the last four months a political finger in the eye of the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was removed by the president in March on charges of misconduct. Mr. Chaudhry appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled a week ago that General Musharraf’s action was illegal, and restored him to the post.
As the principal counsel for the chief justice, Mr. Ahsan not only led the legal challenge but also saw to it that it fueled a popular protest movement. Playing chauffeur, Mr. Ahsan drove Mr. Chaudhry on spirited cavalcades through some of Pakistan’s largest cities. Lawyers in black piled on top of Mr. Ahsan’s Mitsubishi Pajero, shouting slogans for judicial independence.
The streets throbbed with supporters, including cadres from Mr. Ahsan’s Pakistan People’s Party. They threw rose petals to greet the chief justice.
The road shows were part of a careful calculation, one intended to bring maximum pressure on General Musharraf.
“It had to be a forensic exercise,” Mr. Ahsan said a few days after his victory, in one of the first interviews in his law office here in the capital. “To win the people we had to go the hustings, but we could lose the judges that way. Judges are conservative. They don’t want the chief justice addressing rallies. They would think he wasn’t one of them.”
Mr. Ahsan made sure the chief justice addressed mainly lawyers’ congregations. In court, he steered clear of political arguments, until the day before the verdict, when he threatened to depose the president and his intelligence chiefs in court if the bench failed to decide for the chief justice.
The Supreme Court did just that. And dancing broke out in the streets.
“It’s certainly a moment for me of great humility,” Mr. Ahsan said.
Gloating, Mr. Ahsan well knows, does not look good in politics.
The morning of the interview, the phone did not stop ringing with calls of congratulations. Mr. Ahsan, in short sleeves and navy blue pants, growled graciously into the handset, smiling, thanking. Raising a finger, he said he did not like to be photographed while on the phone. That is how movie stars in Pakistan are often photographed, he said.
Mr. Chaudhry’s supporters said that he had been suspended because he potentially threatened General Musharraf’s bid to remain army chief and seek re-election as president when his term expires this year. That bid was expected to be challenged in the Supreme Court, where Mr. Chaudhry had acquired a reputation as anything but pliant. The opposition vows to challenge it still. And the lawyers, Mr. Ahsan says, will again rise up.
“The day Pervez Musharraf announces he is standing for re-election, the bars are going to strike, the courts are going to close across Pakistan, and lawyers are going to be on the street,” he said.
As a lawyer and a politician, Mr. Ahsan has had a front-row seat on many milestones in Pakistan’s turbulent history of democracy and dictatorship. He recalls being jailed seven or eight times under the former president, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. He was law minister in the first democratically elected government to take over after General Zia’s; a black-and-white photograph in his law office in Lahore shows Mr. Ahsan on his feet, addressing the first news conference of the new government and announcing amnesty for thousands who had been jailed and court-martialed by General Zia. The photograph was taken on Dec. 2, 1988. In it, Mr. Ahsan is standing next to his prime minister and party leader, Benazir Bhutto.
He represented Ms. Bhutto, now in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, when she was accused of corruption. More surprising, he accepted the case of a longtime political foe, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, in 1999, when General Musharraf ousted him in a coup and threw him into jail.
Mr. Ahsan is a natural raconteur. He composes his words carefully, deliberately, almost always while staring ahead, rather than at his interlocutor. It is with particular relish he tells of his run-ins with power.
One dates to a night in November 1992, during Mr. Sharif’s government, when hundreds of Pakistan People’s Party workers had camped out on his front lawn in preparation for an opposition rally the next morning. An armored personnel carrier broke through the gate, and the riot police stormed in. Party workers, he recalled, retaliated by thrashing the police. “The police ran,” he said.
Mr. Ahsan has been among Pakistan’s most consistent opponents of military rule and of American backing for Pakistan’s military rulers, from General Zia to General Musharraf.
“This time the military has lost all its legitimacy and authority to rule,” Mr. Ahsan began.
“You know, Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia, it’s not Kuwait,” he said. “It’s not a Middle Eastern Muslim country. It’s a South Asian Muslim country. South Asia as a whole has democratic instincts, democratic guts. What you’ve seen over the last couple of months you wouldn’t see in a Jordan or a Syria.”
This is one of Mr. Ahsan’s favorite talking points, that Pakistan belongs to South Asia, and not to the Middle East, and the theme of his 1997 book, “The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan.” His shelves are packed with Pakistani law books, along with books on the Indian Constitution and “The 9/11 Commission Report.”
Over the mantel, where in most Pakistani offices one would find a giant portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the nation’s founder, Mr. Ahsan has hung a friend’s painting of the giant mango tree in the middle of his garden. Ms. Bhutto’s photograph sits on a corner table. The more prominently displayed image is of him in the driver’s seat of his Pajero, with Mr. Chaudhry next to him and at least seven lawyers piled on the roof.
“It is, I feel, the end of the road for the military,” he maintained. “It is the end of the road for Pervez Musharraf. Nobody should bet on him, not even the Americans.”