Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Judicial spark stifled in Pakistan

Judicial spark stifled in Pakistan
Life under house arrest described
By Kim Barker; Chicago Tribune, January 18, 2008

The judge's family has been locked in its house for more than 10 weeks. The 8-year-old son is disabled and has difficulty walking. His two teenage sisters are not allowed to go to school. Strangers often padlock the gates, and armed men roam the neighborhood.

"How mad they are," the 16-year-old daughter, Palwasha Iftikhar Chaudhry, wrote in an e-mail to a lawyer, referring to government officials who have kept the family detained.

The father, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, is the former chief justice of Pakistan, a man detained since a state of emergency was declared by President Pervez Musharraf on Nov. 3, still the object of the president's ire and watched constantly by police and the intelligence agencies.

"We are being treated as if we are militants, terrorists, extremists," said Palwasha Iftikhar Chaudhry in a rare telephone conversation from her house.

Forgotten in chaos

With the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto dominating the country's politics and headlines, the fate of the many judges fired or suspended in the emergency has faded. But many critics of Musharraf's move say a case like Bhutto's -- allegedly mishandled since her assassination Dec. 27 -- shows exactly why Pakistan so badly needs an independent judiciary.

The handpicked judges who now sit on the country's Supreme Court and provincial High Courts all signed a new oath to Musharraf after he declared emergency rule. Many legal observers believe this oath destroys the judges' independence and credibility -- especially in the investigation of Bhutto's killing, in which many Pakistanis accuse the government of complicity or even responsibility.

The Pakistan Bar Council has demanded a judicial inquiry into the assassination, led by Chaudhry. An editorial on the Bhutto probe in the respected Dawn newspaper concluded: "If the independence of the judiciary had not been compromised as a result of the extra-constitutional measures taken by President Musharraf on Nov. 3, perhaps that institution could have stepped in to bridge the credibility gap that the government so desperately needs filled today."

Although the government had wanted to name an independent judicial panel to investigate Bhutto's killing, critics say they doubt such a panel can be formed.

Critics say the country's legal system has been in tatters, the higher courts paralyzed. Of the top 96 judges in Pakistan before the emergency declaration, 44 lost their jobs because they refused to sign the oath or were not asked. Thirteen of the 18 Supreme Court judges were dismissed.

Corrupting influence

Former Supreme Court Justice Ghulam Rabbani, one of several justices allowed to leave the judges' Islamabad enclave after emergency rule ended Dec. 15, said he did not think it was possible for judges who took the new oath to Musharraf to form a neutral investigatory commission into Bhutto's death.

Many of Bhutto's supporters have accused elements of the government of being somehow responsible for the slaying after a rally for the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

"They are not going to appoint or nominate any judge who is going to be independent [or] anyone they have the least fear would be independent," said Anwar Zaheer Jamali, a former judge on Sindh province's High Court. "Why was normal procedure not followed [in the Bhutto case]? What was the motive? There can be no other motive but to destroy valuable evidence."

Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, tried to fire Chaudhry first on March 12, accusing the judge of corruption. Pro-Chaudhry rallies drew hundreds of thousands of supporters, and the remaining justices threw out the government complaint and reinstated Chaudhry as chief justice in July.

Since declaring the emergency, Musharraf has made his personal animosity with Chaudhry very clear. To Western diplomats, he rails against Chaudhry, who had pursued probes into missing detainees and an earlier attack on Bhutto. At his first news conference after declaring emergency rule, the Pakistani president spent at least five minutes discussing Chaudhry and the minutiae of his expense reports.

"He demoralized law enforcement," said Musharraf at another news conference. . "He demoralized the whole nation."

The new judiciary named by Musharraf already is raising questions about its handling of cases. On Oct. 1, Chaudhry had suspended three police and administrative officials accused of beating up lawyers, journalists and other protesters at a demonstration the week before. On Jan. 3, the new Supreme Court retracted that order.

Imprisoned at home

The judges' leafy enclave of 19 homes on a hill in Islamabad, with a jogging track, a children's park and a mosque, remains locked off from the world -- security officers guarding the roads in and out. Four former Supreme Court judges are still being held under a kind of neighborhood arrest: they can leave their homes but not their neighborhood.

Chaudhry and his family are being held under house arrest in their five-room home. His daughter Palwasha, nicknamed "the commander" by lawyers helping the family on the outside, helps smuggle in mobile phones.

A phone number can usually only be used once or twice before the intelligence agencies somehow manage to scramble it, she said. She said she has read one Harry Potter book more than 20 times since the crisis started, as she has had no other books.

As she spoke, her father's voice could be heard in the background, but he refused to come to the phone. Palwasha said the call would be cut off immediately if he spoke. Even so, the line went dead three times. She said her father worried that the upcoming elections would be fraudulent without a neutral judiciary to help evaluate the fairness of the results.

"I just want to say to the international community, why aren't they being supportive of the chief justice and the other Supreme Court judges?" she asked. "They didn't do anything wrong."

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