Five Questions For Aitzaz Ahsan: SAJA Interview

SAJA Forum Interview of Pakistani Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan
PAKISTAN - Five Questions For Aitzaz Ahsan
By ANIL KALHAN, SAJA, July 1, 2008

NEW YORK, USA, 1 July 2008 (SAJAforum) - This morning, Barrister-at-Law Aitzaz Ahsan, the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan (SCBAP) and the leader of Pakistan's 'lawyers' movement', spoke to a large audience at the New York City Bar Association (NYCBA) about the lawyers' movement, the importance of an independent judiciary and the role of U.S. policy in Pakistan's judicial crisis.

During the past year, the New York City Bar has played an active role in support of Pakistan's lawyers and judges - organizing a solidarity rally with other area bar associations after General Pervez Musharraf imposed "Emergency" rule in November 2007, issuing a statement strongly urging Musharraf to restore the rule of law, and awarding an honorary membership, one of the organization's highest honors, to
Pakistan Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

In his remarks, Ahsan thanked U.S. lawyers and bar associations for their "unstinting support for constitutionalism, rule of law and reinstatement of an independent judiciary in Pakistan." He said that last November's rally - which drew hundreds of New York lawyers to the steps of the courthouse in lower Manhattan - "was an unprecedented collective action and it was noticed throughout Pakistan." Ahsan expressed his view that "what has endeared the people of America to the people of Pakistan, despite the adversarial policies of the American administration, has been the support of the bar associations."

Following his address at the New York City Bar, Ahsan briefly talked to SAJAforum about the lawyers' movement, the prospects for reinstatement of the judges ousted by Musharraf and the role of Pakistan's media:

Q. 1. There has been much speculation about what caused General Musharraf to try to dismiss the Chief Justice of Pakistan [Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry] back in March 2007. What do you think caused him to take that step?

AITZAZ AHSAN: I think that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz poisoned Musharraf's ears after the Steel Mills Case, which was a judgment that was an indictment of the Prime Minister. After the Supreme Court decided that case, people started saying - including myself in speeches in the National Assembly - that the Prime Minister could be indicted and ought to be indicted. So there is some evidence of the
fact that Shaukat Aziz began to advise Musharraf to fire the Chief Justice [Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry] and played on his fear that the Chief Justice was going to decide against him in his bid to be the President for another term. So I think it was mainly this, a paranoia that was created in Musharraf's mind by Shaukat Aziz.

Q. 2. In the past, most Supreme Court justices in Pakistan have cooperated with military coup leaders and even have sought to legitimize military takeovers in their judicial decisions. What do you think has made this moment different and caused so many judges to react differently this time?

AITZAZ AHSAN: I think it was the inspiration that they got - that everyone got, that the entire country got - from the refusal on the 9th of March [2007] by the Chief Justice to surrender his discretion or to succumb to the pressure exerted upon him by five [Pakistan Army] generals. I think that was the most inspirational moment in this entire movement. And that had kind of a carryover momentum which inspired more judges on the 3rd of November [2007] to refuse to capitulate [when Musharraf imposed "Emergency" rule].

The lawyers' movement in Pakistan is unprecedented. In South Asian history, there has never been a movement like this, sustained over 16 months now, more than a year. And for both lawyers and judges, it has been the inspiration provided by one individual that has made it happen. As [China Communist Party] Chairman Mao Zedong said: A single spark can set an entire prairie on fire.

Q. 3. What is your impression of the response to the Lawyers' Movement by lawyers, bar associations and civil society in India? Has it been like the response by lawyers and bar associations here in the United States?

AITZAZ AHSAN: I think it has been insignificant. I don't know why, but it has been quite insignificant.

Q. 4. Publicly and officially, the Bush Administration has been largely silent about the issues surrounding Pakistan's judiciary, typically stating that it regards those issues as an "internal matter." But there also have been reports indicating that some
Administration officials may have an affirmative desire to keep the Chief Justice and the other judges removed by Musharraf from being reinstated. What is your sense of what the Bush Administration's actual position is on these issues?

AITZAZ AHSAN: I have a sense that the American administration would like the judges not to be restored. Although I believe this position was originally intended not to embarrass Pervez Musharraf, I think that now that position has solidified and that Pervez Musharraf himself is not as relevant as the fear of these independent judges.
Even the Americans seem to believe that independent judges may not be good for their interests in Pakistan - which is a convoluted logic, which is absolutely illogical, but I think that they now believe as much.

Q. 5. The media in Pakistan has played a powerful role in covering the events of the past year. Ironically, Musharraf has rather successfully conveyed the impression that he has actually been the one responsible for opening up Pakistan's media. What is your reaction to that?

AITZAZ AHSAN: Well, first of all, the media has played a very significant and important role. Second, the gift of free media is not Musharraf's gift; it is technology. There is no way you can keep the free media out. If you keep the free media out, there will be satellite [TV] channels and other channels that people will begin to watch. So it's not out of any love for free media. It's out of the
fact that there cannot now, in this day and age, be a blackout of the media. So if things will be watched by the people on other channels anyway - from Indian [TV] channels, for instance - it’s safer for the [Pakistan] Government to have Pakistani [TV] channels and to be able to influence those channels. And the [Pakistan] Government still does influence the Pakistani [TV] channels. They knock out [TV] programs that are critical, as has happened recently on [Pakistani Urdu] Geo
Television [Capital Talk show, moderated by Journalist Hamid Mir].


Anonymous said…
WASHINGTON DIARY: Support-for-judges factor —Dr Manzur Ejaz

As an emissary, most of Haqqani’s arguments were in line with the logic of a country which is dependent on US largess. But Pakistanis at home and abroad conveniently ignore this bitter reality

Ambassador Hussain Haqqani and leader of the lawyers’ movement Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan were the topic of discussion everywhere during the annual convention of the American Pakistani Physicians of North America (APPNA).

While Haqqani had some uncomfortable moments confronting a hostile audience, Ahsan was surrounded by admirers. Unlike Haqqani’s detractors, Aitzaz’s critics were polite and subdued.

In Pakistani discussion forums, question-and-answer sessions are counter speeches for venting collective frustrations and serve as therapy for some. According to one of our friends, the key to speaking to a Pakistani audience is not reacting or getting impatient; Q&A sessions are simply meant for letting out grief in the form of question-speeches.

But Mr Haqqani seemed to have forgotten this golden rule when he ran into a rough audience at the Social Forum organised by the Dow Graduate Association of North America (DOGANA) with the help of the Allama Iqbal Medical College Alumni Association of North America (AIMCAANA). Later on he ran into worse at a seminar organised by the American-Pakistani Physicians for Justice and Democracy (APPJD).

When a questioner made a speech against US policy, laced with verses, Mr Haqqani rebuked the questioner by saying “we should learn to grow up”. Poetic expressions are enchanting when one is nineteen but poetry does not help when it comes to understanding realities of relations between two countries like the US and Pakistan, he replied.

Mr Haqqani is an orator who can recite hundreds of verses befitting any situation. So he may have felt like winning the argument.

He was right that Saddam Hussein’s recitation of long Arabic verses could not save Iraq from destruction and if we did not act pragmatically, Pakistan could face a similar situation. As an emissary, most of his arguments were in line with the logic of a country which is dependent on US largess. But Pakistanis at home and abroad conveniently ignore this bitter reality and unload their rage on the messengers i.e. diplomats.

Thus Mr Haqqani was a perfect target because he represents a foreign policy which most Pakistanis don’t like and a political party that is conceived as a hurdle in the restoration of the deposed judiciary. Of course, as a veteran physician told me, PPP representatives, even as ambassadors, are generally not well regarded and received well by the conservative community of physicians.

Some diplomats also tend to forget that they represent a people who are self-conflicted. For example, a person educated in the Pakistani system is fed mythological histories that induce chauvinism and instil a sense of Islamic superiority over people of other religions. So when they are told to be realistic and pragmatic vis-à-vis a “Christian” superpower, they are unable to fashion a non-contradictory response, compelling politicians and diplomats to walk a tight rope. Mr Haqqani’s error lay that day in choosing to confront the contradiction upfront.

A blasé columnist or analyst might have gotten away with such an attitude but not an ambassador of Pakistan from the “rowdy” People’s Party. Most likely the audience was looking for an excuse to put him on the mat and thereby send a message to his bosses back home.

Dr Farooq Sattar was treated even worse last year when he came to the same forum after the MQM’s anti-Iftikhar Chaudhry rally in which many people were killed. In addition, Mr Haqqani did not realise that he was facing a disaffected mob that had come to hear Aitzaz Ahsan and was in no mood to swallow the bitter pill of reality.

Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan was lucky because the audience ignored his PPP credentials. Indeed, when he was asked if the PPP was the biggest hurdle in restoring the judiciary, he replied with a mischievous smile “As a lawyer I would say PPP is not the biggest hurdle.”

Many wanted to have a picture taken with Aitzaz or get his autograph. It was evident that middle class Pak-American physicians were focused on a one-point agenda: restoration of the judges.

Mr Ahsan’s address at Amnesty International was much more comprehensive than at other forums. He repeated his arguments about the virtues of Iftithkar Chauhdry and explained that he was punished by the establishment because of his support to the cause of the poor and ‘wretched of the earth’.

According to his own account of meetings with US legislators, he has been arguing that Pakistan should not be equated with the Middle East: Pakistan is part of South Asia where protection of individual rights is incontrovertible. Such a concept is alien in most of the Middle East, ruled by sheikhs and kings.

He reiterated his claim that he had not come to the US to seek any help. His hosts at DOGANA told me that Mr Ahsan did not go to the State Department.

Wrongly or rightly, the expatriate community, like a large section of middle class urban people back home, is focused on the issue of restoration of the judges. Educated expatriates felt very proud of the lawyers’ movement and think that now they can claim to be citizens of a “civilized nation”.

Therefore, any individual or party that is perceived to hinder the restoration of deposed judiciary is not going to be treated gently at expatriate forums. Haqqani suffered and Aitzaz was loved precisely because of this feeling although both are supposedly PPP-ites.

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