In mid-June, a young Pakistani student was called on to accept an achievement award by Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad. When Samad Khurram strode onto the stage, however, he announced to Pakistan's gathered elite that he could not, in good conscience, accept an award from a government that's remained silent in the face of President Pervez Musharraf's suppression of Pakistan's judiciary. Bowing his head slightly, Khurram then walked off the dais and sat down.
The young man is no radical. Khurram is a polite Harvard undergraduate who looks up to Martin Luther King Jr., not Mullah Omar. He professes a deep fondness for America: not the imperial power that backs Third World dictators, but the nation of laws that he's discovered during his stay in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Khurram's fault, if any, is that he desires the same for Pakistan—a dangerous position to take in his troubled homeland.
Yet his stand is becoming increasingly common. Days before his recent show of bravery, I joined him and a few hundred thousand believers in Pakistan's Constitution outside Parliament in Islamabad. We had gathered for an act of collective and nonviolent defiance perhaps unrivaled in Pakistan's checkered history.
The crowd, which had been invited to assemble by Pakistan's Lawyers' Movement (which I lead), included young girls in jeans and T-shirts, elderly women in veils, students, housewives with their husbands and elderly pensioners with their grandchildren. All had converged on the country's capital to push a seemingly esoteric issue but a critical cause: the restoration of Pakistan's Supreme Court judges.
Those jurists had been ousted by Musharraf on November 3, 2007, after the president, fearing that they'd rule against him on a challenge to his right to run for re-election while in uniform, had declared de facto martial law and thrown the judges out of office.
Pakistan's lawyers quickly took to the streets in protest, but were bludgeoned and bloodied; thousands were detained. I myself was kept first in solitary confinement and then under house arrest for nearly four months. My wife was forced to go into hiding. The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and the other independent judges were detained, along with their children.
Thinking he'd strengthened his hand, Musharraf then held general elections—which his party lost. A new coalition government was formed, which promised to swiftly reinstate the judges.
Then the backsliding started. Prodded by America to retain Musharraf, the government complied and did nothing to restore the judiciary. Promises were made, but one deadline after another slipped by.
After two months, we lawyers returned to the streets, calling for a long march toward Parliament. Starting on June 9, marchers from all parts of the country, including Khurram and I, began to converge in Islamabad. Gazing over the sea of humanity in the early-morning hours of Saturday, June 14, I felt that virtually the whole of Pakistan—a nation distinguished more by its violent differences than its commonalities—had come together on a single issue: justice for the chief justice.
This was not a stereotypical mob baying for any brutish form of recourse. It was, instead, a gathering simply demanding fairness under the law. Though few of the non-lawyers in the crowd could have recited the concepts by name, the assembled citizens were taking a stand for basic principles like habeas corpus, the ideas of the Magna Carta (which proclaims the supremacy of law) and the spirit of the U.S. Bill of Rights—all of which have been squashed by Musharraf. Above all, however, they were there to support the kind of judges, like Chaudhry, who treat these concepts not as mere words but as a solemn compact between the state and its citizens.
As the first rays of the Saturday sun streaked over Parliament, I delivered the concluding speech, and this remarkable crowd, the biggest in Pakistan's recent history, dispersed peacefully for the trip home. Not a shot was fired or a pane of glass broken. Yet more than 200,000 Pakistanis had managed to make their point: they wanted their judges back.
Yet as I walked off stage I found myself wondering if the governing coalition, the general or his backers in America had been listening. Unfortunately, the signs aren't promising. A few days later at the award ceremony for Khurram, the U.S. ambassador blithely ignored his brave call for justice. Khurram himself is now in the protective custody of his terrified parents. They fear that Pakistan's notorious intelligence agencies, known for their propensity for making inconvenient people disappear, could move against him.
This very tendency was one more thing that had landed Pakistan's chief justice in trouble—he had repeatedly demanded due process and habeas corpus for all prisoners, even those picked up by the military.
For Khurram's sake, and that of every other Pakistani, we need our chief justice back now.
Ahsan is president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and the leader of the Lawyers’ Movement.