April Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

It was supposed to be a typical commando action: flatten the target with overwhelming speed and force, allowing zero response time. But like most such planning, simulated in excited imagination in isolation from slippery realities, it all went wrong. Terribly wrong.

Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, though shell-shocked and shaken, held his ground in the intimidating environment of General Pervez Musharraf’s camp office. When confronted with impressive-looking packs of evidence on his alleged misconduct, he demanded time for close examination. When presented with a vast array of names of officials and politicians, including the chief ministers of Punjab and Sindh who would stand witness to his wrongdoings, he insisted to consult his “brother judges.”

When told that a “majority of his brother judges” wanted him out and that the acting chief justice was getting ready to take oath, he measured his words carefully and said that hasty actions would not be good for the judiciary’s reputation.

When asked to quietly resign and take an ambassadorial position “worthy of his stature,” he tactfully declared that it sounded interesting, but it was important to take his family into confidence.

Then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz was brought in by the president’s military secretary to add to the effect of the incredible demand of resignation and to show that everyone—government, military, intelligence agencies — wanted him to step down.

Contrary to the general perception that President Musharraf spent long hours with the beleaguered chief justice, the two were together less than half an hour. The rest of the time the chief justice was in the company of intelligence chiefs who were going over the details of the reference against him.

Sources close to him have told Newsline that Justice Chaudhry simply wanted to get out of the camp office, which he described as a “temporary jail” in those crucial hours.

That instinctive desire, natural in most victims under crippling pressure, was the turning point in the president’s attempt to send the chief justice packing. It is unclear how the chief justice who was supposed to give in and resign at the camp office came out retaining his official position. Perhaps the president’s aides thought that a three-month long campaign against Justice Chaudhry, whose hardest blow was the audacious letter from Advocate Naeem Bukhari, defaming the CJP all around, had softened him enough to extort a signature. Or perhaps they erred in reading his intentions as he was leaving the camp office, calculating (wrongly) that the man had been cut at his knees and could only crawl back to a humiliating retirement.

Indeed the media strategy for the anticipated resignation was planned on the assumption that the chief justice was history. An obsequious Justice Chaudhry meeting the mighty General Musharraf wearing khaki (the ultimate statement of his power) was filmed by government-controlled television and the official photographer, and then released to the media. This was sickeningly similar to the video clip of the meeting of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan with general Musharraf, after which the humbled scientist made a confession on the national hookup accepting his proliferation crimes and disappeared from public view forever.

This did not happen in the case of Chief Justice Chaudhry. Once out of the confines of the imposing mansion in Rawalpindi, he made a few calls to his close lawyer friends at the Supreme Court Bar and the Lahore Bar telling them that a coup against him was unfolding.

judges-2-apr07The calls were intercepted — sources close to him say that he had told one of them that his phones were bugged — and in order to forestall any mischief by the deposed chief justice, brute state force came into action. He was taken in and put under house arrest. His brother judges were sent a copy of the reference — which sources claim was not even ready at that moment in time — on which to start the proceedings of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC).

The president’s order that restrained the chief justice from performing his functions reportedly was devised by the law ministry, where the law secretary for weeks had quietly levelled the ground for the day of presidential judgement on the chief justice. The order, without any legal or constitutional basis, was meant as a stopgap arrangement to block any attempt by the chief justice to retaliate.

General Musharraf was told by his legal advisors to press ahead with the whole plan and that the chief justice’s goose had been cooked. The chief ministers of Punjab and Sindh were told to sternly put down any reaction to the chief justice’s removal from the lawyers community. They apparently gave thumbs up to the idea and reported back that not a soul would stir in protest. General Musharraf was also told by his legal advisors that the chief justice was a nasty man and the lawyers community detested his arrogant, flamboyant and erratic ways. General Musharraf was led to believe that if anything, the legal community in Pakistan would heave a sigh of relief upon seeing the back of “this man.” Media managers were advised to gag all “hyper reporting of the event” and take stern action against those who do not cooperate.

As later events proved (see Military Imprecision), these were all bad judgements exercised by men who knew nothing of the law, or of the constitution and propriety of procedure. An operation that was supposed to be wound up in hours spiralled out of hand to become one of the gravest challenges to General Musharraf’s authority.

Chief Justice Chaudhry, who was supposed to be resting in oblivion, is swooning in the glory of a saviour with the kind of spontaneous backing and support from the public that can easily be the envy of many an elected leader. It is because of this mess, and the debacle that the ‘get Iftikhar’ mission has become, that even brilliant righthand men of the establisment, such as Sharifuddin Pirzada, have publicly disassociated themselves from the whole episode. In fact, one source claims that when General Musharraf contradicted Mr Pirzada’s press statement, it was because Pirzada did not know about the reference. The seasoned lawyer was so incensed that he threatened to resign.

judges-3-apr07Further, the domestic debate triggered off by this sorry saga has gone many steps ahead of the issues that the presidential reference contains. The debate, fuelled by some of the most eminent and brilliant legal minds of Pakistan, such as Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim, Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed and Justice Tariq Mehmood, is now as much about the independence of the judiciary as it is about the autocracy of the system that General Musharraf continues to project as “most fair and democratic.”

Sources close to the president say that the country-wide protests and a string of resignations, including one by Justice Jawad Khawaja of the Lahore High Court, known for his uprightness and probity, have taken him by utter surprise.

But “utter surprise” is an understatement. The President’s House has been shaken to its very foundations. Insiders say that most of the president’s time is taken up by this particular incident. His irascibility level has increased, and in his meetings with the Pakistan Muslim League leaders he repeatedly savaged their inability to come out and defend the government’s case.

It is easy to see where this spleen is coming from. All of the traditional methods General Musharraf has used to bruise his opposition, domestically and internationally, are not applicable to the current challenge he is facing. Those on the streets are not bearded men and veiled women demanding imposition of Shariah; nor are they partisan political workers demanding the return of their exiled leaders. They are lawyers and retired justices protesting against what they believe is the most audacious violation of the constitution and the final blow to the rule of law. They can neither be branded as terrorists nor political stooges — the two labels General Musharraf’s spin-doctors have pasted generously on anyone speaking against the present regime.

Tied to this is another problem: the issues that apparently led to General Musharraf’s estrangement with Chief Justice Chaudhry are all politically explosive and now are being debated openly. Whether it is canceling of the Steel Mills privatisation, his verdict on the New Murree Project, or cancellation of the mini Golf Club plan in Islamabad on a public park, mega money was involved in all, and the list of beneficiaries of such deals all belonged to the ruling clique’s close circles.

The missing persons cases, already a major source of embarrassment to the government, is also in far greater focus than before, with the role of the intelligence agencies at the centre of this attention. The same goes for police high-handedness, which the chief justice dealt with brashly but effectively through suo moto notices, forcing high-ranking officers to line up in his court and produce results on his instant command. Police brutality and attempts by high-ranking officials to save the skins of their subordinates are now being seen from the prism of Chief Justice Chaudhry’s experience.

Some members of Bars at the Tehsil levels and from remote areas have erupted in applause for the chief justice purely out of their derision against the police, which, for the first time, was taken to task at the highest level since the country’s creation.

But the breaking point in General Musharraf’s patience came not on account of the stream of complaints coming from police officials, intelligence representatives, land and money dealers and top politicians whose family and business connections spread across different institutions. According to sources close to the chief justice, in his estimation, the final decision to knock him off had something to do with his remarks about General Musharraf’s uniform, which he had said, could be decided both in the Supreme Court and in Parliament. The president saw this as part of a more elaborate attempt to destabilise him. Sources close to the president say that he saw this in the context of letters that some of the retired generals, his former advisors and politicians had written last year and later released to the press asking him to relinquish his chief of army staff position.

Later intelligence assessments that were brought before General Musharraf to take a final decision on the chief justice concluded that Justice Chaudhry could not be relied upon any longer and posed a danger to the system’s stability.

Ironically, in attempting to dislodge the CJP, General Musharraf has ended up achieving the very result he wanted to avoid: exposing the weak side of his power base and dissolution of the myth of its invincibility. The outpouring of support for the chief justice was second only to the ferocity with which the protestors were demanding return to genuine democracy. For days General Musharraf’s advisors kept on insisting that this was a bubble and would burst in no time. Their recommended response was predictably shortsighted: beat the protestors back and gag the media. Both courses of action backfired, blackening the government’s image and bleeding its credibility. The media hit back against attempts to put the kibosh on the daily events coverage and grabbed instant international headlines; the Bars protested even more violently and sent shockwaves across the country.

In a string of hurriedly called meetings at the camp office, an instant review was done and it was concluded that the situation was bad and that the tack needed to be changed. However, by the time this realisation came about, the damage was already done: General Musharraf’s advisors had not just cooked a sorry soup, they had sent him in the thick of it, headlong.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.