These are tough times for Pervez Musharraf. Under increasing criticism for his inability to control Islamic militants in the country's tribal areas, the Pakistani president now faces a revolt within his own judicial establishment. For the past two weeks, hundreds of lawyers have staged protests and gone on strike over the president's decision to suspend Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry for alleged misuse of his powers. (The charges include nepotism and an excessive fondness for luxury cars and aircraft.) In addition to the demonstrations, eight judges and the deputy attorney general have resigned, raising questions over the future of Pakistan's judiciary—and its leader's grip. NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau spoke to Asma Jahangir, one of Pakistan's foremost Supreme Court lawyers and chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Excerpts:
MOREAU: What is Musharraf's motive for suspending Chaudhry?
Jahangir: Insecure dictators see ghosts everywhere. This is not the first time it has happened. He forced the Supreme Court justices to swear a loyalty oath to him when he came in [via a bloodless coup in 1999.] He's insecure. Not only does he want a pliant judiciary, he wants a totally subservient one. But it's very difficult in 2007 to have that with today's free media and the independent bar.
Musharraf claims that he is only following procedure—that Chaudhry's suspension is standard reaction to the charges against the chief justice.
The president has tried once again to lie and to mislead everybody. His move is not as casual and simple as he puts it. It was obviously preplanned. He claims that placing Chaudhry under house arrest was a tactical error. Yet for two days this "tactical error" continued.
Chaudhry ordered the government to begin looking into the hundreds of so-called Islamic extremists who had been detained and disappeared. Is this a factor in Musharraf's decision?
Musharraf is a very skillful liar, but now he is losing his touch. He says: "I've been very worried about the missing people, too, but what can I do? They are jihadis." He wants the world to feel that these disappeared people are Islamic militants, which is not true. I would say 60 percent to 70 percent on the list of the 141 disappeared people that we have given to the Supreme Court are Sindhi and Baluch nationalists who are secular. And some of these nationalists are well known in the country. They are poets and writers, and their work is secular. They have no connection to jihad, or Al Qaeda or Taliban. Either he's living in denial or is misled. But I think he is just lying.
But Chaudhry ruled that the government should produce the missing people, didn't he?
As far as the missing people are concerned, Chaudhry has not given a single judgment on it. He kept the Human Rights Commission's petition pending for one and a half months. But since we are lawyers of renown, it is very difficult for any judge to kick us around—he had to hear it. But he went at it very slowly. He did give a notice to the government [to act], but he really didn't give a judgment. There was not a single time when he said that those who kept these people should be brought to justice. All he was doing was saying to the government, "Let's find some people." How can any court close its eye to hundreds of people who have disappeared?
Was Musharraf worried that Chaudhry would rule against his retaining a dual role as president and chief of Army staff later this year?
Whether the president can continue to wear his uniform or not was not an issue. We do not think that any judge has that kind of courage, including Chaudhry. We don't think that these judges have gumption or courage.
The police roughed up Chaudhry as he went to his hearing last week.
You even see the chief justice on television being dragged by the hair. It was all over the newspapers and television. It's a violation of human rights. What frightens people the most is that if they can treat a chief justice so shabbily and humiliate him so shamelessly, then nobody is safe. We all feel that we are next in line.
What will happen if the Supreme Judicial Council exonerates and reinstalls the chief justice?
If the SJC restores [Chaudhry] to the bench I don't know if he can perform independently because lawyers are championing his cause. Would a chief justice who comes back riding on the shoulders of lawyers be able to sit on the bench and not be able to think about the fact that he owes his reinstatement to lawyers?
How do you see this ending?
They [the government] probably feel the longer they prolong the proceedings the greater the chance that the movement will eventually fizzle out. My own assessment is that the situation will become defused because lawyers can't stay on strike and keep protesting for months on end. But this government will make another mistake. This government is beyond repair.