Case Dismissed: Behind Barbed Wire, Judges Back Musharraf
Declan Walsh was the only British newspaper journalist to watch Pakistan's supreme court deliver its final verdict on Pervez Musharraf's election victory
Friday November 23, 2007: The Guardian
President Pervez Musharraf's hand-picked judges peered wearily from the bench of the half-deserted supreme court. Before them sat Dr Zahoor Mehdi, a humble village preacher and the last legal hurdle between Musharraf and another five years in power. It was not much of a contest.
With his black robe and greying beard, Mehdi cut a lonely figure in the front row. From a small Punjabi backwater 80 miles from Islamabad, the self-described religious scholar stood against Musharraf in the controversial October 6 presidential election. He failed spectacularly: the general won 98% of votes cast; Mehdi did not even get a nomination.
Yesterday, he seemed surprised that his case had been resurrected. But he was happier talking religion than politics. The prophet Muhammad once visited him in a dream, he boasted afterwards. "It was in 1986, and he wore his turban like this," he said, pointing to the unusually tied sheet on his head. "Since then I have worn it everywhere."
The judges gave his case short shrift. "Dismissed," declared the chief justice, Abdul Hameed Dogar, his voice echoing between the marble walls. And so Musharraf secured his strange victory - at considerable cost to his reputation and Pakistan's democracy.
Many believe ensuring the supreme court would validate his re-election was at the heart of the decision to impose emergency rule three weeks ago, a move that triggered mass arrests and television blackouts and plunged the nuclear-armed nation into crisis. Now that the job is done aides say Musharraf may resign as head of the army as early as tomorrow, to be sworn in as a civilian president shortly after. It is a risky gambit for the military leader. Yesterday he was taking no chances.
The supreme court resembled a makeshift prison, ringed by barriers, barbed wire and hundreds of police. Entry was by invitation and just a handful of journalists made it in. An intelligence agent kept watch on the door, propelling visitors into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze before they could reach the court. "Sorry," he apologised with a wan smile. "But you know this is emergency time."
The court was presided over by 10 judges whom many Pakistanis believe to be puppets of the regime. A few streets away Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the independent previous chief justice sacked by Musharraf remained under house arrest, along with 10 other judges. Human Rights Watch accused Musharraf of pursuing an "ugly vendetta" against the judge, who has been locked in with his wife, teenage daughter and seven-year-old son since November 3.
Mehdi's petition was followed by a case challenging the legality of emergency. The debate had a manufactured air. The attorney general, Malik Qayyum, cited precedents in American and British law. "Even the English courts say that if the security of the state is threatened you must act," he said.
Irfan Qader, a lawyer arguing the other side, also leaned his argument towards Musharraf. "The president owes his first allegiance to Pakistan," he said in conclusion. "In extreme circumstances, he can act."
The judges listened to the near theatrical performances, stroking their chins. It was over by lunchtime.
The burlesque show was a far cry form the glory days of the supreme court earlier this year, when whooping lawyers leapt over the seats following a series of anti-government rulings that stunned Musharraf and threatened, ever so briefly, to change Pakistan's tortured system of governance.
But yesterday many of those same lawyers were behind bars. Hillary Clinton and other American politicians have appealed for the release of Aitzaz Ahsan, the erudite supreme court bar president. But Chaudhry may have few hopes of rescue from the west. Although the US and Britain repeatedly called on Musharraf to return to "the democratic path", they sidestepped questions about the reinstatement of the deposed chief justice.
In recent days the government also announced the release of thousands of detainees. But human rights groups are sceptical of the numbers and the arrests continue, as demonstrated when the Guardian tried to meet Athar Minallah, an outspoken senior lawyer, for lunch in Islamabad.
Minutes before the appointment a police vehicle forced Minallah's car to stop in central Islamabad. Six plain clothes officers dragged the lawyer out, bundled him into the van, and sped away. "I'm afraid we won't be having lunch," apologised his colleague, Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former supreme court judge who had been travelling in the same car.
Ahmed went on to deliver a speech in Rawalpindi to a hall of lawyers yelling anti-Musharraf slogans. Meanwhile Minallah's wife Ghazala stood outside Adiala jail - which is filled with accused murderers, thieves and terrorists - for four hours yesterday.
She brought a toothbrush, toothpaste, food and a blanket for her husband. But officials refused to allow her to enter.
"I am very worried," she said last night. "These people are ruthless. They have no ethics, no morals, they are capable of anything. I will be concerned as long as he is in there."
What happens next
The supreme court is expected to deliver a ruling today validating President Pervez Musharraf's re-election, clearing the way for the general to become a "mister". Musharraf aides say he may resign as army chief as early as tomorrow, and be sworn in as a civilian president shortly afterwards. He will be succeeded as head of the army by Lieutenant General Ashfaq Kiyani, a close ally and former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. What is less clear is when emergency rule will be lifted. Musharraf has threatened to extend it until the planned elections on January 8. International pressure may force him to act sooner. Political parties must file their nomination papers for the January poll by Monday.