Who’s afraid of Aitzaz Ahsan?

By Ayesha Tammy Haq

We have a civilian president. The emergency has been lifted, at least for some. The president and government are at pains to say that all is well, everything is going according to plan and that they are completely in control. Television channels are back on showing happy things like cooking shows, so we can all think happy thoughts and not dwell on rabble-rousing lawyers and journalists. Political parties are frenetically campaigning, running the length and, some, the breath of the country, getting ready for an election most of them claim will be rigged. To show us all how in control they were, the three remaining heroes of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, Justice Tariq Mahmood and Ali Ahmed Kurd, were to be released for three days so they could enjoy Eid with families and friends, and the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the other judges confined to quarters in the judges’ colony in Islamabad were to be allowed out to say their prayers.

Aitzaz Ahsan, confined in solitary in Adiala Jail and then moved to house arrest, was released on Dec 12 at midnight. He decided not to waste any time and went out to visit the deposed judges, meet with lawyers and talk to the press. So while the government thought they were cool, calm and in control, their reaction to Mr Ahsan’s 24 hours of liberty showed exactly how cool, calm and in control they were. What was it that scared them so much? Mr Ahsan is not known for violence, does not wield a weapon and has never been engaged in any kind of anti-state activity, unless you call winning the most important case in Pakistan’s, indeed some say in the world’s, history anti-state activity.

Prior to the ninth of March he was best known for his oratory in and out of parliament and his legal skills in the courtroom. After July 20 he was the man who had won the biggest case in history. The parties were two Goliaths, the Chief Justice of Pakistan versus the Chief of the Army Staff. Lesser men would have taken the case to the conclusion the army chief would have liked to see – off the rails and out of the court. Mr Ahsan knew that, while the entire nation was watching and had a stake in the result, it was this 13-member bench and not 160 million people that would restore the chief justice. To do this he had to strike a balance between the national movement he was leading outside court and creating and maintaining a cordial atmosphere in court. He managed it well. Through the week he argued eloquently in court, over the weekends he drove the Chief Justice across the country, carrying with him the lawyers, cutting across party lines, bringing out party workers and hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. It made him the country’s number one lawyer and at the same time the person most feared by the establishment, and in particular by the president. This is borne out by the fact that as he appeared set to win yet another landmark case, the eligibility of a sitting army chief to contest a presidential election, he was the first person to be arrested on Nov 3. His arrest was followed by the arrests of other main leaders of the lawyers’ movement, and then thousands of lawyers were rounded up in an attempt to completely render the lawyers leaderless and in disarray. Interestingly, politicians seemed not to pose much of a threat and it appeared that they were being arrested for form’s sake. Picked up and released almost immediately. Unlike protests by the lawyers, journalists, students and other members of civil society, their rallies were not lathi-charged and they got, and continue to get, plenty of press coverage. The lawyers and their supporters on the other hand seem to strike fear in the heart of the government.

So on the evening of Dec 20, having spent 50 days in jail, Mr Ahsan, after informing the authorities of his plans, set off for Islamabad with his son to say his Eid prayers at the Faisal Mosque. A short distance outside Rawalpindi he was stopped at gunpoint by plainclothes policemen who threatened him, roughed him up and threw him into the back of an open police van. They then proceeded to drive him around Chakwal and its environs for several hours, where he was exposed to the freezing night air in what appeared to be a deliberate effort to ensure that he get pneumonia and be rendered incapacitated and unable to lead the lawyers. After all, it had worked before, inasmuch as the authorities almost killed Muneer Malik in Attock jail where his kidneys shut down. Here it was a case of, get his lungs, put him out of commission without any external physical evidence of violence.

What is it about Mr Ahsan and his colleagues that worries the Presidency so much? Is it that they are the only real challenge to this dictatorial order? Is it that there are major constitutional roadblocks on the road to parliament and that the political parties do not appear to have the strength and maturity to deal with this mammoth constitutional pileup? Perhaps it is that they are clear on what is to be done. Their agenda is simple – rule of law and constitutionality. Where challenges to the military might are taken to the Supreme Court. For a dictatorial regime this is unacceptable, and rather than have the court decide, the full might of the state was used to snuff out fledgling signs of independence not only of the judiciary but the media as well.

What is it that the lawyers have done? Why are they being punished? Where is the clash of ideology? Is it that they want Pakistan to be a strong state with strong institutions that work for and protect its 160 million citizens and not a select few? Is it that they respect all institutions, including the military, but require that they do not stray out of the limits set out for them by the Constitution? The withdrawal of the release orders and the manner in which they were withdrawn signify a big defeat for a government that has put to rest the myth that all is well in the state of Pakistan. All, it appears, is not well. Mr Ahsan’s 24 hours of liberty showed that the lawyers’ movement was alive and powerful and the only force that can, and has the will to, challenge the legality of the actions taken by the president since Nov 3.

A lawyer created Pakistan through constitutional means and died before he could put the country on the right trajectory. His vision has been hijacked and many a military adventurer has imposed his own version of that vision. Today another lawyer has come forward to lead the country’s legal fraternity and civil society in taking Pakistan back on the road to constitutionality.

The writer is a corporate lawyer, host of a weekly talk show on satellite television and a freelance columnist.
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