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Friday, February 26, 2010 E-Mail this article to a friend Printer Friendly Version

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VIEW: Reassessing the lawyers? movement ?Ayesha Ijaz Khan

The judiciary must pick its battles carefully and avoid the type of crescendo that would altogether remove its focus from its primary function of delivering justice. It must be mindful that unless people begin to feel the results of judicial independence at the courts with regularity, the euphoria and goodwill generated by the movement will not last forever

More than a year ago, before the chief justice and the superior judiciary were restored to their rightful positions, I asked a respectable man who spends his free time running an NGO and helping poverty-stricken women, why he was so cynical about the lawyers? movement. ?Because in Pakistan all movements are eventually hijacked by right-wing extremists,? he responded.

I did not agree with him then. And I do not agree with him now. Nor do I, for a minute, regret being a part of the incredible lawyers? movement. But recent troubling reports to the effect that certain lawyers vowed to ?burn alive? any lawyer who defends the helpless family of deceased, 12-year old Shazia Masih, should give all of us pause. The strength of the lawyers? movement was the broad-based consensus it produced, and although Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry became a symbol of the movement because of the courageous stand he took, it was nevertheless the importance of rule of law that brought so many varying parties together and mobilised civil society en masse.

By making statements and taking actions directly contrary to that purpose, the lawyers will not only lose the moral high ground that was painfully constructed through economic and physical sacrifice but also take away the potential of this movement to accomplish bigger and better things. The ultimate aim of the movement was to make justice more accessible to the common person and to make the legal process more transparent.

If the movement is reduced to partisan politics or holding certain personalities above the law, then its positive effects will be forgotten and the esteem that the lawyers had earned in society will dissipate. Even if only a few lawyers are responsible for this outrageous behaviour, it is incumbent on the leadership of the movement to come out very strongly against such elements. Whether or not Advocate Naeem is guilty of the crimes alleged against him is for the court to decide, but if he has used influence at the local bar association to obstruct justice and to the extent that his supporters have made statements and taken actions making access to justice more difficult for Shazia?s family, then the need for immediate censure from the bar itself arises. At the very least, those guilty of such offenses must be given stern warnings and if they continue to obstruct justice then their licenses must be revoked. We cannot afford to disgrace the legal profession with members of the bar who work against the fundamentals of the rule of law.

It is important also for the media to step up and do its duty, as it has done many times in the past. If there can be countless television shows dedicated to the ramifications of the NRO judgement and several others on the shortcomings of the Aafia Siddiqui case, then we need at least a few shows dedicated to following up on the Shazia Masih case as well. If we set our priorities such that unless a case generates domestic political controversy or focuses on international double standards, we ignore its importance, we will be doing our people a grave disservice. The media must strive to highlight the plight of the poor and dispossessed if we are to continue to give our people the type of hope the lawyers? movement once kindled in their hearts.

When the chief justice was first restored in July 2007, some of the most inspiring and bold decisions were taken. On issues of environmental degradation, human rights, and particularly, women?s rights, the court showed zero tolerance for abuse. And thus, even though the judiciary was once again deposed in November, the sympathy and accessibility shown to peasants abused by landlords or young girls traded by virtue of discriminatory and extra-legal jirga/panchayat decisions provided the impetus to sustain the movement for another year and a half, resulting in the ultimate reinstatement of the superior judiciary.

Soon after restoration, it was inspirational that several judges and prominent lawyers resolved to self-examine, to pinpoint reasons that had previously delayed and denied justice to average people, and to rectify those causes of ill. But somewhere along the line, the motivation to help those most in need of it or to ensure justice for those least likely to get it has waned a bit and the focus is shifting to asserting the judiciary?s primacy over other less popular arms of government.

Though it is inevitable for the judiciary to assert itself in light of its much-needed newfound independence, in its quest to do so, it must not forget the essence of the movement that led to its independence. In the tussle between the executive and the judiciary, the lawyers cannot see their role as cheerleaders for the judiciary. The long march to restore the judiciary was essential and Mian Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N?s role in it laudable. But today we are at a different stage and democratic battles against democratic governments are not fought on the street but by allowing the institutions to function within their parameters. In this regard, the judiciary has a right to assert itself against the executive but the lawyers have no further role to play in this.

The judiciary too must pick its battles carefully and avoid the type of crescendo that would altogether remove its focus from its primary function of delivering justice. It must be mindful that unless people begin to feel the results of judicial independence at the courts with regularity, the euphoria and goodwill generated by the movement will not last forever and average citizens may become as disappointed with it as they appear to be with democracy.

Judicial independence, a term often misunderstood, simply means that the judiciary is independent of pressure from other branches of the government. It is a matter of pride that this has been achieved through the lawyers? movement. However, other questions remain. Importantly, is the judiciary also free of bias? Is it magnanimous enough to treat those political forces that supported it at par with those that opposed it? Is its vision broad enough to ensure that the people of Sindh own its decisions as much as the people of Punjab or other provinces?

These are the questions the judiciary must bear in mind if it is to continue on a public opinion high. If, on the other hand, it goes the way that our political parties have gone in the past, and seeks vindication or revenge, as opposed to safeguarding national interests, then it may find that its graph too may be on the decline.

The writer has worked for American and Pakistani law firms and currently writes as a political analyst based in London. Website: www.ayeshaijazkhan.com

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