How Pakistan's Sacked Judge Became a National Hero

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Mohsin Raza / Reuters

Suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry speaks during a function at Lahore High Court in Lahore, Pakistan, May 6, 2007.

During most of Pakistan's recent political history, the country's judiciary has always sided with its military, justifying its frequent coups against the country's malfunctioning elected governments and endorsing the generals' mandate to rule. So, when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was suspended and accused of misconduct by Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, it was widely expected that the spat would soon blow over.

Instead, however, the firing of Chaudry has turned into a political crisis for Musharraf, as massive crowds continue to demonstrate their support for the 59-year-old lawyer from Quetta. His journey last weekend from Islamabad to Lahore on the historic Grand Trunk Road, usually a four-hour drive, turned into 24-hour odyssey as tens of thousands of people clogged the 200-mile stretch of road to catch a glimpse of the man who has become the country's most popular figure. The mood of the crowds was virulently anti-government, as protesters demanded that Musharraf step down and shouted anti-army slogans — outbursts that in Lahore's state of Punjab, considered the heartland of Pakistan's armed forces, must have come as a shock to its generals. In response, according to eyewitnesses and privately-owned TV channels, the government jammed the transmission of private TV channels covering the event, cut off power supply to whole neighborhoods, shut down small hotels and restaurants along the route to dissuade protesters from sticking around, and dragged empty shipping containers into the road to block Chaudhry's way. In Islamabad, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz reminded one reporter that the government had the constitutional right to declare a state of emergency in such situations, prompting an editorial in the respected English-language daily Dawn to scold that the government "would be well advised not to opt for an emergency declaration. It if does, the regime itself would be the loser, because it is unlikely that a declaration of emergency will be able to contain the current wave of demonstrations."

The protests, led primarily by lawyers and judges supporting Chaudhry, are being taken as a sign that Pakistan's judiciary is losing patience with the Musharraf government's interference in the legal system, and that this is combining with popular anger over rising prices of basic commodities, corruption in the government and military actions in Balochistan and the tribal areas.

On Monday, Pakistan's Supreme Court prevented the Supreme Judicial Council from hearing the government case against Chaudhry, meaning that his case will instead be heard by the full Supreme Court bench, where Chaudhry enjoys the support of the majority of judges and is more likely to prevail. The ruling prompted lawyers in offices across Pakistan to burst into cheers. "We used to have a toothlees and boneless judiciary," says Aslam Butt, 50, a Supreme Court lawyer. "Not any more."

For Musharraf, the coming months are critical. His terms as both President and chief of the Army expire later this year, which is also when the next general elections are due. The general depended on the judiciary's support when he came to power in 1999, but with the courts against him, he will face a struggle to remain in power. That's because despite having seized power in a military coup, he has relied on the legal and constitutional system to legitimate his authority, rather than simply ruling by decree. As Ismat Mehid, a lawyer in Karachi, put it: "The judiciary has always been the B team of the army. Now it doesn't want to be the B team. It wants to become the A team of the people."