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Low Bar

by Khaled Ahmed

A lawyer at an antigovernment protest in Lahore, March 15, 2009. Arif Ali—AFP

Are Pakistan’s lawyers completely out of order?

Last month, a group of district court lawyers beat up two police officials, including the station house officer of Islamabad’s Margalla Police Station, during a protest against the impounding of an allegedly unregistered motorcycle. The next day, when the SHO and his deputy appeared in court to testify in the case filed against them, the lawyers thrashed them once again. It didn’t end there. The SHO of a neighboring police station who reached the court to rescue his colleagues was also given a drubbing, requiring medical care for all three officials.

The trio was still being treated for their injuries when the SHO who had impounded the motorcycle—already released to its owner—was summoned by a civil judge to respond to a petition lodged against his alleged misconduct. The lawyers were waiting for him. As he entered court, a gang of black coats fell on him and tore off his uniform. There was no justification for the violence and representatives of the local district bar association were unable to explain any instigating factors. Fearing worse, the police told the judiciary that the brutal assaults had demoralized their department and would severely impact their ability to protect the federal capital if the legal fraternity were not reined in.

Why have Pakistan’s upholders of law become so violent, more akin to hoodlums than the educated elite they claim to represent?

The answer lies in the 2007 lawyers’ movement, when over 100,000 lawyers from 106 districts across the country massed in favor of ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Protesting against then-President Pervez Musharraf was in vogue and the charged demonstrators resorted to widespread vandalism and assaults on anyone perceived as siding with the former Army chief.

Sensing victory, Chaudhry blatantly used the district bar associations as a counter to the Army-backed president and encouraged them to stay on the streets until their demands were met. His exhortations allowed the mobs to gain strength and expand their demonstrations, forcing Musharraf to allow general elections to take place. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led government that was subsequently elected finally reinstated Chaudhry in 2009. This process of “correction” may have resulted in the restoration of “democratic” rule in Pakistan, but had an unintended side effect of validating the lawyers’ violent acts—the results of which are still felt today.

Logbook of Violence

In the decade since, lawyers have continued to log additional acts of outrage, leaving the country’s legal system in disarray. What started as a movement to restore the judiciary’s legal might has devolved into one that lashes out at anyone perceived as an enemy—even senior judges. Last year, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah and a seven-member “supervisory committee” tentatively approached a band of “hooligan” lawyers and urged them to “curb growing incidence of misbehavior in lower courts and to protect rights of the judges, especially women, who are often subjected to hostile lawyers.” But when the committee issued show-cause notices to a gang who had brutalized a female judge after an unfavorable verdict, they refused to appear before it.

This isn’t a unique occurrence. In June 2015, Lahore High Court’s then-Chief Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik had to rush to Sheikhupura to help a senior additional district and sessions judge after a group of lawyers locked him up in his courtroom. Detained Judge Khizar Hayat Gondal’s “crime” was to dismiss a bail application submitted by defending lawyer Imran Tatla. Incensed, Tatla threatened the judge with a physical thrashing if he did not reconsider his verdict.

Similarly, in 2009, the police registered a case against five lawyers after they beat up an assistant subinspector at a Lahore court—live on TV. In 2012, all civil judges of Lahore and Faisalabad observed a “pen-down strike” against the torture of their colleagues by lawyers. Two years earlier, judges at the Sheikhupura additional sessions court staged a strike and protested against local lawyers after two attorneys abused a judge for denying bail to their client. Rauf Gujjar and Raza Gujjar initially resorted to verbal abuse, but Raza escalated matters by removing his sandal and hitting the judge’s face, leaving a bruise. Instead of seeking resolution, the lawyers matched the judges’ protest with a rally of their own.

Unchained or Unhinged?

The wave of violence sweeping across the legal community appeared to reach a fever pitch in 2010, with members of the Lahore Bar Association demanding Lahore High Court’s then-Chief Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif transfer a district and sessions judge. Claiming Sharif had betrayed them by refusing to remove Judge Zawar Sheikh, hundreds of lawyers marched on the Lahore High Court, breaking windows and chanting slogans against the senior judges. Lasting several days, the demonstrations spread nationwide and resulted in police detaining hundreds of lawyers before releasing them on Sharif’s behest. Instead of owning up to the hooligans in their midst, lawyers accused Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of instigating the riots.

The same year, Gujrat lawyers Nadeem Tahir and Naeem Sandhu teamed up with three other men and killed factory owner Tariq Mehmood over a traffic accident. In Sargodha, three more lawyers assaulted four women, leaving them senseless. Reportedly, lawyer Meher Hayat exchanged harsh words with the women during a hearing and summoned two friends to help him lash them within the district court compound. The violence continued through 2011. After Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s bodyguard assassinated him on Jan. 4, 2011, lawyers from Islamabad vowed to defend the killer. Showering assassin Mumtaz Qadri with flowers, they praised his “courage” and swore to defend him pro bono.

In Sheikhupura, a group of lawyers ransacked the offices of the district coordination officer, thrashing any opposition, after the senior official ordered the removal of illegal encroachments within court premises. Also in 2011, Faisalabad lawyer Tanvir Sandhu went berserk after a judge granted a new court date to his opponent. Sandhu attacked the judge, grabbing him by his neck and dragging him to the floor. He then slapped and kicked an assistant trying to stop the fight. In Lahore, two lawyers left a 70-year-old man and his sons bloodied for daring to submit a case against their client. In Mian Channu near Lahore, enraged lawyers attacked the office of the assistant commissioner, forcing him to flee. Two other lawyers thrashed motorway police personnel after being booked for speeding; at the hearing for their case, they attacked them again.

The rightwing attitude reflected in the lawyers’ response to Taseer’s killing was reinforced by the legal community’s reaction to the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Lawyers in Peshawar and Lahore offered in-absentia funeral prayers at court premises at the behest of the Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool, whose leaders said bin Laden’s death would not halt the “movement” started by him.

Origin of Violence

A few years ago, a report originating from Turkey claimed that police brutality was linked to “rustic” origins. Scholars in Pakistan immediately applied the conclusion to their own security forces, noting that many of them were also recruited “from the ranges” outside urban centers.

Conventional wisdom holds that rural areas breed toughness and rough behavior due to a traditional pattern of using force to secure discipline. The writ of the state in Pakistan is weaker along the fringes, and in order to maintain control three institutions have been empowered to maintain order and form a mutual balance of power: feudal landlords, police, and the magistracy. While these three are intended to ensure justice is delivered to all, infighting, tribal allegiances and personal biases can often result in one group being favored over its rival when disputes arise.

For those living in rural villages, the easiest means of preventing maltreatment from these centers of authority is to become a part of them by getting a son recruited into the police or educated as a lawyer. With a family member in one of the coveted seats of power, the tyranny of peripheral regions (mufassil) can often be avoided at the expense of those who are not so privileged.

Pakistan’s legal community is rife with lawyers who hail from the hinterlands and now wear their tribal identity as a badge of pride to attract clients from similar backgrounds: Tatla, Vadra, Virk, Vathra, Warraich, Ghumman, to name but a few. Such men often use victories in the courtroom to build up their social standing, allowing them to move to urban centers where their children receive better education and their practices further boost their fortunes. When judges bar their progress by ruling against them, or delaying their cases, they can take it as a personal affront and resort to abuse to obtain favorable verdicts. This creates a vicious cycle, with the very men tasked with upholding the law becoming responsible for its worst abuses—often with few qualms about their actions.

Violent Revolution

The lawyers’ movement allowed mufassil lawyers free rein to implement their “revolution” through threats and even physical violence if it meant deterring dissenting colleagues. The resulting empowerment crossed the boundaries of lawful behavior, but it isn’t unique. History has shown us that those seeking revolution often desire it to improve their lot in life.

The French Revolution comprised two communities from the feudal hinterland, the French peasants often treated as chattel and the lawyers whose low status could be improved if oppressive social and legal codes were changed. Ironically, had Roman law never been introduced to France, the country might never have had the lawyers it needed for its revolution.

In July 1793, French lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre, presiding over a Committee of General Security comprising mostly lawyers, declared: “It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counterrevolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty.”

That Reign of Terror (1793-1794) used the guillotine to execute 40,000 “conspirators” at the Place de la Révolution in Paris. Roman law created the lawyer; the lawyer inspired by the new creed of “reason” used it to unleash his reign of terror. Instead of giving rise to democracy, it replaced a king with an emperor, as Napoleon Bonaparte assumed power.

Roman law in India, meanwhile, bred an anglicized community of lawyers who embraced the Western political heritage of popular representation and used it challenge the Raj. Had the British Raj never brought Roman law to India, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, son of a bankrupt Muslim trader, might never have gone on to become Bombay’s most powerful lawyer and the eventual founder of Pakistan.

Jinnah used his newfound knowledge to lead Muslim lawyers who refused to be held hostage by the religious leadership that dreamt of an unequal jihad that could only be won through a miracle. He married a Parsi; his lawyer lieutenant Liaquat Ali Khan married a Hindu-turned-Christian. However, when Jinnah the lawyer triumphantly reached Lucknow after achieving what is known as the Lucknow Pact with the All-India Congress, his Muslim votaries didn’t recognize him as a lawyer. Instead, he was hailed as “Maulana Mohammad Ali Jinnah.” Both Jinnah and his legal colleague Mahatma Gandhi shunned violence and followed the Roman traditions of point of law and argument—Jinnah, it seems, knew his Cicero well.

Despite those pioneering heralds, the legal community in Pakistan has responded to the state’s trajectory toward Islamization by becoming more “pious” themselves. But the paradox of lawyer-based Roman law persists.

In 2007-08, Malakand fell under the sway of the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi. Led by Sufi Muhammad, the militant group imposed Qazi courts under the guidance of Mullah Fazlullah, but barred all lawyers from attending them. Fazlullah’s argument was that since Shariah remained uncodified, and since the courts didn’t need lawyers to help them clarify the law by citing jurisprudence, the lawyers were no longer required.

The 2007 lawyers’ movement helped Pakistan’s legal fraternity realize there is strength in numbers and was instrumental in driving the country’s transition from quasi-democracy to democracy. Their actions since then have betrayed the selfish reasons many of them joined it. After every revolution must come a time of rebuilding—for Pakistan’s lawyers that time is now.

From our April 1 – 8, 2017, issue.

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