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Report: Pakistan elections 2013

Pakistan’s judges – whose side are they on?

Lawyers shouting anti-Musharraf slogans as the former military leader was being taken to court in April.
Lawyers shouting anti-Musharraf slogans as the former military leader was being taken to court in April. Reuters/Mian Khursheed

Pakistanis go to the polls on Saturday and the former ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is having a tough fight holding onto power. It faces a stiff challenge from the opposition parties. But it has another enemy: a newly combative judiciary.

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Lawyers’ protests against the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry helped topple military ruler Pervez Musharraf, leading to the 2007 election that brought the PPP to power at the head of a coalition.

Musharraf returned to Pakistan this month hoping for electoral glory. Instead he encountered some old enemies – the judges.

Humiliatingly, the courts placed him under house arrest and banned him from standing for elected office ever again.

But the law hasn’t given the PPP an easy ride, either.

The Supreme Court sacked prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani because he refused its order to ask Switzerland to reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

And several proposed laws have been blocked by court orders to the fury of PPP MPs.

The legal profession, long cowed by corrupt politicians and military dictators, has become a combative and ever-present force in the life of the country.

Having faced teargas and baton charges by the riot police and won Chaudhry’s reinstatement, lawyers and judges feel a new sense of empowerment, according to Ali Akbar Qureshi, a lawyer and a former judge.

“In result of the lawyers’ movement, the lawyers consider that they have restored the judiciary that was disposed by the president Musharraf,” he says. “Therefore the lawyers are considering as a right that they should be one of the beneficiaries of the restoration.”

And the judges’ apparent scepticism about the probity and efficacy of the country’s political leaders has found an echo with many Pakistanis, including many who had high hopes of the back in 2007.

“The act of government, the act of administration, they’re not doing well, they’re not doing their job in a right way,” says lawyer Safraz Ahmed Qureshi, a supporter of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), which is the PPP’s longstanding rival. “So that’s why the role of Supreme Court becomes very, very clear and very important.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, that’s not the way the PPP sees it.

It claims that the judges are in cahoots with Sharif’s PMLN.

During this year’s election campaign the PPP produced a TV advertisement accusing Sharif and his brother Shahbaz of money-laundering. Now, the party claims, it also has a tape of a judge apparently assuring Shahbaz that he would stop the advertisement being broadcast.

Aziz ur Rehman chan, who is standing for the party in a Lahore constituency, says that’s just one example of judicial bias.

Dossier: Pakistan General Election 2013

“There’s no two ways about it, everybody can see it plainly that the judiciary has been acting in a biased way, not just against PPP, it’s more a pro-PMLN judicial activism that we’ve been viewing in the past five years and even still right now,” he says.

“For example, even when Pakistan Muslim League-N approaches the court for certain favours, they are granted favours they don’t even ask for; the judiciary is so generous regarding its approach to Pakistan Muslim League-N.”

Ali Akbar Qureshi says that the new judicial activism has filled a vacuum created by the politicians’ abuse of power, but that does not mean the courts are dispassionately interpreting an unequivocal body of laws.

“The law is not powerful in Pakistan but the courts are powerful,” he comments wryly. “The law is being used as a tool to give benefits or to tease someone, as the court feels.”

Judicial activism goes beyond the PMLN-PPP spat.

When this election campaign started, registration officers, who are also judges, revived a constitutional requirement that candidates be pure and trustworthy. It was introduced by former military dictator Zia ul Haq.

Some interpreted that, as Zia probably did, as meaning the candidates must be good Muslims.

They questioned the politicians on their knowledge of the Koran and their observation of religious rituals, not to mention whether they paid their bills, a habit that many powerful Pakistanis seem to have got out of, and barred some of those who were found wanting.

Whoever leads the next government will face a feisty legal profession.

If the PPP loses, at least it will have the satisfaction of finding out whether the judges are as tough on its successors as they have been on the Zardari government.

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