Persuading Pakistan's Justices to Stand Up

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The current political crisis in Pakistan centers on a campaign led by lawyers who say they are trying to establish a genuinely independent judiciary. Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association President Muneer Malik persuaded the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, to take his case to the streets of Pakistan after Musharraf tried to fire him.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Pakistan is in the middle of a political battle - on one side is President Pervez Musharraf, on the other, the country's chief justice and thousands of his supporters. Musharraf tried to remove the top judge, and the resulting protests have shaken the country to its core. Behind it all is a campaign by lawyers to establish a truly independent judiciary.

NPR's Philip Reeves introduces us to one lawyer, who is a big force behind that effort, an effort which has important implications for the U.S.

PHILIP REEVES: The thing about Muneer Malik's manner suggests he's important. He's a soft-spoken, understated man of 57. When he comes to Islamabad, Malik stays here in a downward hill, middle-ranking hotel. He looks embarrassed when it's suggested he's a key player in the worst political crisis yet faced by Pakistan military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. A crisis causing concern in Washington, because it could eventually bring down Musharraf, a crucial ally in the war on violent Islamist extremism. Yet, Malik doesn't deny his pivotal role.

Mr. MUNEER MALIK (President, Supreme Court Bar Association): It was I who suggested that this is not a short-term struggle. We cannot confine it to the courts alone.

REEVES: What he calls the struggle is a public campaign launched after Musharraf tried to dump Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Since then, it's dominated Malik's life.

Mr. MALIK: I feel so passionately about it. It is a matter of principle.

REEVES: The chief justice was suspended in March, pending the outcome of a judicial hearing into allegations of misconduct. Pakistan's legal community was enraged. The lawyers sort this as a cynical attempt to oust the judge who might disrupt Musharraf's plans to secure another term as president while retaining the old powerful post of army chief of staff.

(Soundbite of crowd protest)

REEVES: Chaudhry and the lawyers took their battle to the streets. They marched through the big cities. Usually, the crowds were noisy but small, mostly lawyers and activists from opposition parties. Yet, when the judge's convoy traveled to Lahore, Pakistan's cultural capital, tens of thousands turned out to greet him. And in Karachi, a week later, there were deadly street battles.

Malik, who is president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association, was at all the rallies.

(Soundbite of crowd protest)

REEVES: When Chaudhry appeared at the packed seminar in Islamabad last weekend, Malik was there, too, in front of the microphone.

Mr. MALIK: Nearly all men can't stand adversity. But if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

REEVES: Malik's role hasn't gone unnoticed.

Mr. MALIK: My office was sealed in Karachi. There was indiscriminate firing on my house, and my daughter is just lucky to be alive. There is not a day that I don't get a threatening phone call, but I'm prepared to take the consequences.

REEVES: Malik outlines the lawyers' demands - Musharraf must reinstate the chief justice and resign as army chief of staff and hold free and fair elections. Later, though, it becomes clear that Malik will settle for the judge getting his job back.

Mr. MALIK: It's the recognition of a principle. You've got to recognize that reinstatement doesn't mean that all hell will break loose, that heavens will fall. The chief justice is sensitized. He would want to be remembered in history, not as a vindictive person but as a benevolent person, as a real chief justice.

REEVES: Malik says this doesn't mean he's changed his mind.

Mr. MALIK: My protest, my verbal protest, my thoughts - you can't change that. I will continue to feel the same way. But my street protest, as a lawyer - if the chief justice is reinstated - be over.

REEVES: Musharraf could save himself, and yet so far, there's no sign he is giving any ground. While that's the case, says Malik, there's no doubt Pakistan's chief justice will stay in the fray.

Mr. MALIK: Oh, yes, he is a brave man. He was not and is not an angel. People make mistakes in their lives. But the important thing is when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

REEVES: For a weakened Musharraf, this means one thing: the going is going to be tougher than ever.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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