On the Road with Pakistan's New Hero

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Farooq Naeem / AFP/ Getty Images

Lawyers gather at a rally for suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in Abbottabad, Pakistan, June 2, 2007

Heroes come with chariots. James Bond had his Aston Martin, Batman had the Batmobile. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry rides in a rattletrap 1994 Mitsubishi Pajero with ailing suspension, an inoperable sunroof and no windshield wipers. Shy, slightly cross-eyed and at times awkward, Pakistan's Supreme Court Chief justice is as unlikely a hero as his ride. But he is at the center of an escalating crisis that threatens to destabilize Pakistan's military dictatorship. On Saturday, the Chief Justice, who was suspended by President-General Pervez Musharraf nearly three months ago for alleged misconduct, left his home in Islamabad to address a High Court Lawyer's convention in Abbottabad, 70 miles away. The journey took 15 hours.

Tens of thousands of Pakistanis lined the route, cheering, chanting and waving banners emblazoned with Chaudhry's face. At every small town and junction the Mitsubishi, accompanied by a growing cavalcade of cars, trucks, vans, busses, rickshaws and even donkey carts, was welcomed with boisterous cheers. Dancing ponies performed in front of the car. Camels were decorated for the occasion. Stickers of Chaudhry, tagged MY HERO, were passed out by the thousands. All the while, Chaudhry sat silently in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead. He refused to sign autographs and occasionally attempted a vague presidential wave. His impassiveness only seemed to encourage the crowd further. A young man in a t-shirt and tight jeans ran along side the slow-moving vehicle and shouted through an open window, "Thank you sir, I'm so proud of you sir." Another, wearing the traditional salwar kameez and prayer cap, said, "We stand behind you sir, and we are millions."

The flags of Pakistan's rival political parties waved, for once, in unison. Members of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, of Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, of conservative Jammat Islamia and fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema Islam, were out in full force, as were thousands of ordinary Pakistanis. Rauf Naizi, a 33-year-old farmer, had been waiting hours for the Chief Justice to pass through Haripur, the halfway point on Chaudhry's route. "The government rents crowds for their rallies, but we are not getting money or food to be here," he said. "We come just to pay tribute to the Chief Justice, because he stood up against the army generals."

It was a point echoed along the entire route. Last Wednesday, Chaudhry's lawyers released a sworn affidavit, detailing the events of March 9 when, according to Chaudhry, a uniformed President Musharraf, flanked by several other high-ranking generals, demanded that the Chief Justice step down — citing allegations of abuse of office, including nepotism and misuse of government property. It's a charge Chaudhry rejects. Chaudhry, a Musharraf appointee, refused to resign, becoming the first person in Pakistan's known history to say no to a ruling general. Already a symbol of defiance, Chaudhry was vaulted into hero status overnight. "Chaudhry said no, Chaudhry is our hero," chanted the crowds.

Inside the car the air was thick with the mingled scents of diesel and roses. The air conditioning had been shut off to stop the car from overheating in the crawling traffic. Disembodied hands thrust camera phones through the open windows. Bottles of cold mango juice, Chaudhry's favorite, were shoved into the back seat. When he reached out to shake hands with the crowd they kissed his knuckles instead. When he rolled up the window to stop the flood of rose petals, they kissed the glass. Aitzaz Ahsan, Chaudhry's lawyer and driver for the day, couldn't see through the windshield for the roses.

"This is wonderful," murmured Chaudhry. "I never would have dreamed this would happen." It was the most voluble the Chief Justice had been throughout the ride. "This would be one hell of a campaign," said Ahsan, a former senator with the PPP, with a small tinge of regret. But Chaudhry is no candidate. Instead he is a symbol of political change in a nation whose patience with its military dictatorship is growing increasingly thin — and he poses an even greater risk to the current government. Analysts in Pakistan suggest that Musharraf's principal motive in suspending Chaudhry may have stemmed from fears that the increasingly independent Chief Justice would obstruct his bid for another term in office, questioning the constitutionality of his dual role as President and army chief. Musharraf has said that he will seek reelection by the current, pro-government assembly before it is dissolved in November, thus ensuring another 5 years in power.

"It never occurred to the generals that Chaudhry would say no," says Ahsan. "So when he did, they had no plan B." What transpired instead was an increasingly ham-fisted attempt to contain the subsequent public outrage by cracking down on media coverage of the ongoing crisis. On Thursday, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority banned live talk shows. On Friday it banned any live coverage of the Chief Justice's rally the next day in Abbottabad. On Saturday authorities sent letters to cable companies telling them not to air programs that encourage an "anti-state attitude" or that contain "aspersions against the judiciary and the integrity of the armed forces of Pakistan." Abbottabad was Chaudhry's largest rally yet, drawing some 50,000 people. "It was a stupid move on the government's part," said Ayesha Tammy Haq, a lawyer and well-known talk-show host who joined the rally. "I would have much preferred to watch it on television, but instead I had to come out and see it with my own eyes." Haq picked up her mobile phone and scrolled to a popular text message making the rounds, a paraphrase of Euripides: "Those whom the gods would destroy they first make blind, paranoid and insane."

By the time the Chief Justice reached Abbottabad around midnight, his initial convoy of 100 cars had swelled to 2000. The crowd around the venue where he was to speak was so thick that he had to abandon the Mitsubishi and make the final few hundred meters by foot. Arcs of rose petals tossed overhead marked his slow passage through the crowd. The outdoor venue was packed with about 7,000 lawyers, ministers and district administrators who had been waiting since 9 a.m. for his arrival. Even 14 hours in, the speeches were going strong — testament to the lawyers' oratorical endurance. In between speeches, music blasted from the sound system. The most popular, a new tune written for the occasion, was a catchy Punjabi pop song whose refrain echoed through the makeshift stadium: "Hey man, take off your uniform. Your job is done now, time to go home." The opening notes launched a conga line of black-suited lawyers through the aisles. It was like something that would be seen at an American lawyers' convention, two hours after the start of the open bar.

Finally, Chaudhry stepped to the podium at 2 a.m. and launched into his prepared talk on article 25 of the Pakistani constitution, about non-discrimination before the law. Following in the wake of several fiery speeches proclaiming victory against military interference and exhortations to carry on the good fight, his talk was remarkably tame. Boring even. But the audience was rapt. "In the eyes of the law all citizens are equal. I appreciate that you are struggling for a free and independent judiciary and supremacy of law. Your struggle is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan," he said. "It is the basic responsibility of the courts to protect the fundamental rights of the people." Not once did he mention his case; under Pakistan's legal system, Chaudhry is prohibited from commenting on it while the matter is before the courts. But even in that, his message was clear. No man is above the law. Not even a Chief Justice — or a President.