Raising the bar

My article on the politics behind the upcoming Supreme Court bar elections. Published in The Friday Times, 15th October, 2010

Otherwise a regular election of a professional body, this contest is being perceived as a political battle between the country’s power-centres

On October 27, the legendary advocate and human rights’ activist, Asma Jehangir will face Ahmad Awais in the electoral contest for the President, Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA). Awais is a senior lawyer at the Supreme Court who is being backed by powerful groups within the lawyers’ community. Otherwise a regular election of a professional body, this election is being perceived as a political contest between the country’s power-centres: the hyper-active judiciary and the pro-democracy forces which support the ascendancy of the elected institutions in national affairs.

Asma Jehangir’s campaign has been supported by lawyers like Munir A. Malik, Salman Raja, Abid Minto, Khawaja Sultan, Justice Tariq Mehmood (r) and Ali Ahmed Kurd (who is spearheading her campaign in Baluchistan). The PPP lawyers’ support of Ms. Jehangir has created unintended problems for her campaign, which have been especially highlighted in the media. It is true that the PPP offers a sizeable vote bank but this affiliation has caused the human-rights activist’s campaign to be labeled as being “pro-Zardari”.

Jehangir is adamant to keep the Supreme Court Bar Association free from politics once she’s elected as president. Asad Jamal, a human rights lawyer, has remarked that the lawyers affiliated with the PPP are supporting her willingly. They cannot be told to conceal their support and just come out to vote in her favor at the time of the election. Justice (retd) Tariq Mehmood is of the same view and has clarified that the election does not and should not have anything to do with party alliances. He went on to say that personally everyone has political views, and this does not reflect on Asma being a partisan candidate.

If fingers are being pointed at Asma due to PPP support, Ahmed Awais’s campaign may be even more embroiled in party allegiances since he is former Vice President of Pakistan Tekreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Justice Mehmood was of the view that this was worse than any support that Asma has from lawyers sympathizing with the PPP. In fact, when pro-PTI lawyers were approached to vote for her campaign, they clearly stated that they were under orders to vote for their party and their opinion would not be swayed. Another issue is that of biradari voting where lawyers have been arguing on the lineages of the candidates.

Ahmed Awais has claimed that the current triangular faceoff between the executive, the judiciary and lawyers has been created by Law Minister Babar Awan and that “the present situation is the result of massive funds which he gave to selected people.” The key figures of the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement are split over their support of the three candidates. The stance of Aitzaz Ashan has been especially ambivalent, with the Daily Dawn (14 September, 2010) asserting that he is supporting Ms Jehangir. However, Ejaz Haider in his piece published by the Express Tribune (October 4, 2010) has claimed that Ahsan is in reality supporting Awais, with lawyers close to Asma’s own campaign stating that he has not shown any open support for Ms. Jehangir, even though she has supported him openly and vocally in the past.

Those who are part of Asma’s campaign seem confident of her winning this contest. Yet, there is uncertainty. In the lawyers’ community, Asma is seen as an activist and not an advocate. With the conservatism and gender bias that lawyers have belied, Asma Jehangir’s campaign had to face undue resistance.

“The support of Hamid Khan’s group will be a key deciding factor”, says Faisal Naseem Chaudhry an advocate based in Lahore. However, unlike the situation in the past, the blind support that many lawyers used to give to Hamid Khan‘s group may have eroded somewhat under the presidency of Qazi Anwar in the last one year. Qazi Anwar hails from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Even though he was not known in Lahore, Hamid Khan’s backing allowed the rolling in of additional votes for his presidency. However, over the last year, “Anwar has been giving various controversial statements on political matters and many feel that though the SCBA President can criticize the judiciary, it is not in his/her mandate to issue politically partisan statements”, added Chaudhry.

As far as the third candidate Ikram Chaudhry (based in Islamabad) is concerned, his politics falls somewhere right of centre. It has been said that the Rawalpindi/Islamabad lawyers are quite retrogressive and the votes he gathers will pose a greater risk to Ahmed Awais than those captured by Asma Jehangir.

The recent bench-bar clash had an impact on both candidates. It is difficult to say whether the influence will be positive on Asma’s campaign. The bar leaders have attempted to show themselves as the victims, and Asma’s sympathy towards them may be misconstrued. The whole incident of booking protesting lawyers under draconian sections of the criminal law was sensational. Asma’s protest against trying the lawyers in anti-terrorism courts was only about the right to bail for the arrested lawyers. Awais’ aides have said that the tussle was orchestrated, as the decisive factor will be the votes from lawyers in Lahore, which has the largest concentration of advocates compared to all cities of Pakistan. Anybody winning in Lahore will bag SCBA presidency.

As a human rights activist, Ms Jehangir has been anti-establishment and anti-government throughout her long, celebrated career. It is said that she is no blind proponent of the present judiciary like others, who don’t believe in criticizing the transgressions of judges in legal matters. But at the same time, Ms Jehangir’s struggle for an independent judiciary has been matchless and credible. It is hard to believe that once elected she will be anyone’s puppet. Furthermore, many right-wing elements exist within the lawyers, for whom Asma emerges as a threat, and for whom a progressive woman leading a prestigious body will shake the status quo. Most importantly, Asma Jehangir has been a fearless critic of most political parties (including the PPP) in the past and is not a partisan candidate by any stretch of the imagination.

It is well known that independence of the judiciary means nothing if placed outside the broader framework of democracy. And most of Asma’s supporters have echoed this sentiment. Justice Mehmood and Asma both have stated that the bar and the bench are like the parallel wheels of a vehicle, if they don’t stay parallel, at a distance, the vehicle of justice is going to collapse.

According to Justice Mehmood, the job of the SCBA President is to uphold the rights of the lawyers and to work for an independent bar. He feels that Asma has always struggled for human rights, fundamental to our Constitution. Asma’s experiences make her a very appropriate candidate for the position. The SCBA needs someone brave like her who will not pander to threats and vested interests. Asma is likely to serve the interests of lawyers and not of a specific group and that is her inherent strength.

It was 1971 when her struggle began against dictatorship and authoritarian rule, in the case of Asma Jilani v Government of Punjab (PLD 197 SC 139). The Supreme Court of Pakistan was to rule on the legitimacy of a military assumption of power and a suspension of the Constitution. Giving its ruling, it denied validity to the military takeover. This was a historic judgment that law students and lawyers cite even today. For those who know the history of her past conduct, the suggestion that she is anti-judiciary, or subservient to political interests is preposterous.

It should be mentioned that Asma faces a formidable adversary. Awais is widely respected and more importantly has strong lobbies working for him. Therefore, the situation remains uncertain. The ideological overtones of this contest cannot be overemphasized. Asma Jehangir has a glorious record of defending human rights to the extent that she has been often called the conscience of Pakistan. Her progressive and liberal political views are also well-known. She is fighting on several fronts: against the established norms of a male-dominated profession, against partisan forces that are more committed to remain as ‘foot-soldiers’ of a powerful but unaccountable judiciary than be agents of wider democratization. Asma’s voice of reason is needed in our national discourse on law, politics and social change. Therefore, this contest is important and will be keenly observed by all Pakistanis.

Saadia Gardezi


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