TIME's Aryn Baker spoke recently to Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the lawyers protests that shook the regime of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last year. He was allowed to speak publicly but briefly in early February before being returned to the house arrest he has suffered since Musharraf imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3.
TIME: You were arrested, jailed and then put under house arrest for your support of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry three months ago. Do you regret your decision to pursue this cause?
AHSAN: Why should I regret it? I play a clean game of cards. It is a shame that the world doesn't notice this most unprecedented move in all history around the world, from ancient, medieval to modern, there is no precedent of an emperor or a shah or a king or a sultan or a Caesar dismissing 60 judges and arresting them. And some of them continue to be detained. Imagine the Supreme Court justice being dismissed by the president of the United States. Think of John Roberts being detained with his family as the chief justice of Pakistan has been detained with his family [he has] three young children who are all going to school. One boy is a special child [i.e., developmentally disabled].
One is surprised that your top American officials are talking about Musharraf as if he is god's gift to America. It's sad and it is counterproductive. Would you suspend the U.S. constitution and then hold elections? So why is Pakistan any different? Are we any less deserving of democracy?
Why is Musharraf such a problem?
Musharraf is a bad loser. Vis-a-vis the people of Pakistan, he is a bad loser. He arrested the judiciary under the fear that the justices would decide against him. [Until then] it was a fair fight. He was represented by the top lawyers in the country. The judiciary had earlier decided against him [and his bid to run for office while remaining Army Chief] unanimously. We were expecting a second judgment, which might only have said he had to remove his uniform. It probably would have bound him to be re-elected by the new assembly [which is to be voted in on Feb 18th]. Because the fact is, the constitution says that the president has to be elected after the expiry of the term of the assembly. Faced with that argument he just sort of became a wild bull in a china shop
Does the Pakistani military see him in the same way?
I hope so. You see, the good thing about the Pakistan army is that it is one man's army. One man has total control over it and that is the Chief of Army Staff. The army does not think except the thoughts of the Chief of Army Staff. Now Musharraf is no longer the chief. But he remains the most unpopular, in fact the most hated man in the country. Stick with him and a lot of that hate will get passed on to the army. And it's not just unpopularity. It's visceral hatred. Because of the way he has dealt with so many things.
What is the American Administration missing?
Pervez Musharraf has two faces, one for the Americans and one that is seen by the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis see him presiding over an economy that has just unraveled. The poverty line is inching up. There is enormous unemployment particularly in the past three months because of a shortage of power, and now the flour crisis. They look at the face of a man who is repressive at home, who locks up judges, imposes martial law and amends the constitution on his own with the endorsement of his handpicked judges. You know he is a man who is arbitrary, a man who has no respect for rule of law, he just wants to cling to power, a man who was the cause of a total breakdown in law and order, and a man who is absolutely economical with the truth. He's a liar.
One thing I would like the Americans to realize is that you cannot have democracy without a free judiciary. In the West an independent judiciary came several centuries before full democracy. In England, from where you get all your values historically, the chief justice was exercising the power of habeas corpus in the early 17th century. An independent judiciary is the plinth upon which the structure of democracy was constructed. Had the courts not been independent for 200 years, the non-landholding gentry would never have won the right to vote. Independence of the courts preceded democracy.
You see what the Americans are trying to institute in Iraq as the most important weapon against the war on terror there. It's justice, democracy, and empowered people. And here they have participated in the demolition of the same structures. We have a judicial tradition and reasonably independent judges. We had a reasonable tradition of empowered votes. [Allowing the government of Pakistan to dismiss] the judges is going to prove to be as ill-advised and as disastrous as dismissing the entire Iraqi army. The Americans are going to rue the day that they allowed without a whimper Pervez Musharraf to arrest the judges. If they continue to keep the status quo on that issue, they will find that their man and their policies will become more and more unacceptable.