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Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry declared Lawyer of the Year


Pakistan's chief protester

Rex Bossert / Editor-in-Chief
December 17, 2007



Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry
Illustration: Joseph Adolph

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is not exactly a household name to the legal profession in the United States. We think he should be.

Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan who was dismissed from office by President Pervez Musharraf after the imposition of emergency rule, has been a strong voice for the preservation of the rule of law in Pakistan — one of the United States' key allies in the war on terror.

Though currently held under house arrest, Chaudhry has spoken out against emergency rule and has inspired thousands of his lawyer-brethren to protest in the streets in their traditional black suits and ties. He has become an international symbol of an independent judiciary and of resistance to the excesses of military rule. Hundreds of attorneys have also turned out to protest on his behalf in cities across the country.

As this year's National Law Journal Lawyer of the Year, Chaudhry is a bit of a departure, since normally our sights are set on the American legal community. And there were certainly numerous U.S. lawyers who deserved mention, as indicated by the many nominations we received from our readers. The unusual choice of Chaudhry was prompted by the rare instance of a judge taking such a bold and influential stand against a government in defense of judicial independence and the rule of law. And his example has prompted much commentary and concern among lawyers in this country, who by virtue of their profession have a vested interest in promoting the rule of law.

Chaudhry's example reminds us that no government or person — whether ally or enemy — is above the law.

Reluctant revolutionary

Chaudhry hardly began his career as a revolutionary. According to press accounts and a court Web site, he was born to a lower middle class family in the city of Quetta, Pakistan, in 1948. He studied locally and then earned a law degree in Hyderabad. Chaudhry started practice as an advocate in Quetta in 1974. He practiced in many fields of law, including criminal, civil, tax and constitutional law, and eventually became president of the bar association of the Pakistan province of Balochistan. In 1989, he became Balochistan' s advocate general, and the next year, a judge of the province's high court. A stint as chief justice of the Balochistan High Court followed in 1999, and he was then elevated to the Pakistan Supreme Court in 2000. In 2005, he was appointed chief justice of Pakistan.

During these years he showed few signs of breaking with traditions or an independent streak. Indeed, he participated in Supreme Court sessions between 2000 and 2005 that validated Musharraf's military takeover, the legal framework for his rule, and a constitutional amendment that gave Musharraf added powers and allowed him to keep his hold over the army.

But after becoming chief justice, Chaudhry began to show a desire to assert the high court's independence. According to various press accounts, he began pushing the government to disclose the whereabouts of Pakistanis who were secretly detained by intelligence agencies for alleged terrorism or other political purposes. He also held unconstitutional a steel-mills privatization plan that was dear to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

On March 9, Musharraf, backed by Aziz and the military, suspended Chaudhry because of alleged nepotism and abuses of office, sparking mass protests. A 13-member panel of the Pakistan Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry in July, saying he was illegally suspended and dismissing charges against him. At the time Musharraf said he would accept the court's ruling, which the London Times said was the first ever by the court against a military ruler.

But on Nov. 3, Musharraf, perhaps fearing the Supreme Court would overturn his recent election as illegal because he remained head of the military, suspended the Constitution and purged the court of Chaudhry and others who he felt were disloyal. In his declaration of emergency, Musharraf accused the judiciary of hindering his fight on terrorism, and he said he needed to maintain stability in the face of extremism. Musharraf has asked judges to swear an oath to the provisional Constitution, but many have refused, at Chaudhry's encouragement. Lawyers are also boycotting courtrooms run by judges who have sworn their loyalty to new legal regime.

Chaudhry was replaced by a new chief justice, and eight other high court justices swore a new oath. The reconstituted court set aside an earlier ruling by Chaudhry and other rebellious judges that the emergency was unconstitutional.

Under house arrest, Chaudhry made a cellphone call to a meeting of the Islamabad Bar Association in which he told dozens of lawyers on speakerphone: "The lawyers should convey my message to the people to rise up and restore the Constitution.

"I am under arrest now, but soon I will also join you in your struggle."

He has also been secretly calling Pakistani journalists, who are defying an emergency order prohibiting coverage that would embarrass Musharraf or the government.

Asked by CNN International whether he had a message for Musharraf, Chaudhry said, "He should restore the judiciary, which was working independently in this country for the strengthening of the institution of democracy."

Pakistani lawyers, who have been among the most vociferous opponents of Musharraf, are continuing to protest Chaudhry's treatment and military rule, and are boycotting court proceedings in several cities. In the face of such opposition, Musharraf — who recently took off his military chief's uniform and has been sworn in for a five-year term as civilian president — has promised to end the state of emergency and restore the Constitution before January parliamentary elections.

Outpouring of support

The Harvard Law School Association has recently awarded Chaudhry its highest medal, the Medal of Freedom.

"As lawyers who value freedom and the rule of law, we at Harvard Law School want Chief Justice Chaudhry and all of the courageous lawyers in Pakistan to know that we stand with them in solidarity," said Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan.

"We are proud to be their colleagues in the cause of justice, and we will do all we can to press for the prompt restoration of constitutionalism and legality in Pakistan."

Hundreds of lawyers recently held a protest march in Ottawa over the situation in Pakistan, sponsored by the Canadian Bar Association, which is also urging lawyers to sign a petition and write to Pakistani officials.

Among many others in the United States who have rallied in support, the American Bar Association spoke out against Chaudhry's suspension earlier this year, saying that it "appears to have been inconsistent with the language of Article 180 and Article 209 of the Constitution of Pakistan. International covenants and conventions recognize and adopt the right of an independent judiciary as an essential pillar of a society that contends it supports the principle of justice for all."
More recently, lawyers have also rallied in support of Chaudhry in cities across the United States.

And on Dec. 4, American Bar Association President William H. Neukom asked lawyers around the country to sign a petition asking Musharraf to restore the constitution in Pakistan, reinstate Chaudhry and other justices and free lawyers and civil leaders who have been jailed unjustly.

"An independent legal system and a just constitution are cornerstones of all lawful societies. The arrests of Pakistan's Supreme Court justices, and of thousands of lawyers, judges and civil leaders, are a profound breach of the rule of law," Neukom wrote. "The suspension of Pakistan's institutions of justice is a threat to the rule of law in all nations. We, the lawyers of America, stand with you."

The NLJ joins the chorus of those calling for the just treatment of Chaudhry and a return to the rule of law in Pakistan.

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Judges | Cheif Justice

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