Lawyers take to streets

Politicians so far are absent from Musharraf protests

November 07, 2007|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Muhammad Akif Khan does not wear his uniform to work anymore, changing in the office instead. He takes taxis instead of driving his car. And he no longer sleeps at home, worried that the police may come for him.

Khan is no criminal, no political activist. Instead, he's a lawyer, known in Pakistan as a "black coat," because of the black suits and ties lawyers must wear in court. Because of his job, Khan has become by default a key member of the opposition to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his decision to impose emergency rule Saturday.

"He is drunk with power," said Khan, 30, usually a corporate lawyer, who attended a small rally of lawyers in Islamabad yesterday morning. "We have to protest. We don't know what else to do. We are the custodians of the judiciary, the custodians of the constitution and the custodians of Pakistan."

But, setting aside protests by lawyers, the streets have largely been empty. Since Musharraf suspended the constitution Saturday, much of the political opposition has been in disarray, demonstrating how effectively Musharraf, also the country's army chief, has suppressed democracy and political dissent since seizing power in a bloodless military coup in 1999. It is not clear whether political parties, lawyers and other people opposed to emergency rule will be able to mount an effective resistance that could force Musharraf to change his mind, force the military to intervene or persuade the West to pressure Musharraf to restore democracy.

Despite the crackdown and the arrest of more than 2,500 people, most free politicians have been debating what they should do rather than rushing to protest. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who heads Pakistan's most popular opposition political party but also has been negotiating a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, has said she wants to mount a joint opposition movement but left open the possibility of working with Musharraf in the future.

Her ultimate decision will have major implications for what happens in the world's only Islamic nation known to have nuclear arms. Although her foes criticize her for cooperating with Musharraf, supporters say that she is merely trying to determine the best way to restore democracy in Pakistan.

"I'd rather give her the benefit of the doubt," said Amna Piracha, a lawyer and longtime member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. "And if there is an opportunity for us to show resistance, every concerned citizen should gather in this struggle."

There were signs that political parties were trying to join the lawyers and play a more active role in the opposition yesterday. Bhutto flew to Islamabad and planned to meet with other opposition leaders today to try to formulate an opposition strategy. On Friday, she plans to hold a rally in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.

Nawaz Sharif, the exiled leader of the other major opposition party and a sworn enemy of Musharraf, condemned what he called martial law in Pakistan. In a statement, he said 2,400 party workers have been arrested, although government officials say that estimate is high.

But on the streets, thousands of lawyers, occasionally brandishing tomatoes or eggs and always dressed in their black suits, black ties and white shirts, have been the only visible opposition to Musharraf - just as they have been the main opposition to military rule since March, when Musharraf botched an attempt to fire the country's independent chief justice. That set off national lawyer-led protests and the crisis that culminated in the president's declaration of emergency rule.

The lawyers' main motivation has been that same chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was fired again by Musharraf on Saturday. Chaudhry, who has turned into the leading anti-Musharraf symbol not only for the legal community but also for the nation, gave a speech yesterday via mobile phone urging lawyers to resist emergency rule.

Chaudhry said now is the time for lawyers to sacrifice to restore rule of law.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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