Pakistan’s Embattled Lawyers: A Long Quest for Justice

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On September 2, a suicide bomber struck a court in Pakistan’s northern city of Mardan, killing twelve. On August 8, a suicide bomber dressed in a lawyer’s uniform attacked a hospital in Quetta, Balochistan, killing 74, mostly lawyers who had gathered at the hospital to protest the targeted-killing of a colleague earlier that day. Both attacks were claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban faction.

Pakistani lawyers are being targeted because they are vocal, peaceful, and effective civil rights activists in a region where such voices are either absent or silenced. They have a deep-rooted tradition of battling at the frontlines of the fight for freedom and justice, and represent a rare institution that bridges the state and civil society. Pakistan’s judiciary desperately needs better protection, and the United States can leverage its aid and diplomacy to ensure that happens.

Historically, lawyers have occupied a central place in Pakistan’s civil society. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, was a barrister who successfully employed legal arguments to secure Pakistan’s independence from the British. Since independence, Pakistan has seen four major movements to restore democratic governance, and lawyers have been vital players in each one.

The Lawyer’s Movement in particular, drastically improved the credibility of the judiciary amongst the Pakistani public and showed that the judiciary can garner popular support and open new avenues of political power. Led by activist-lawyers, like Barrister Aitezaz Ahsan, the movement was later joined by all major political parties. It successfully bridged Pakistan’s religio-political divides in its demand for the constitution and democratic rules of governance to be upheld. It also brought into the limelight the decades old role played by Pakistani lawyers and squarely established them as a well-respected and effective bridge between the state and civil society. This is why today, lawyers are in the cross-hairs of militants of all stripes.

Yet, Pakistan’s legal community is by no means monolithic. Indeed, Pakistan’s Supreme Court judges have invariably legitimizedmilitary coups in the past, using the legal theory of “doctrine of necessity” and arguments for the need for political stability. Lawyers’ political leanings fall on a broad spectrum, demonstrated most dramatically in the case of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. When Punjab governor Salman Taseer was murdered by his own guard for calling for the reform of blasphemy laws, a group of lawyers honored Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin, with garlands at his first court appearance, announced free legal aid for his case, and organized public rallies in his support. In fact, a group of lawyers is credited with a spike in blasphemy cases in Pakistan: with their aim of upholding the death penalty for blasphemy, these lawyers reportedly offer free legal counsel to anyone bringing blasphemy charges.

According to Ahmer Bilal Soofi, renowned Pakistani human rights lawyer, regressive voices are a minority in the legal fraternity. On the whole, lawyers in Pakistan have consistently fought for justice and democracy. On the other end of this spectrum, it is also members of the legal community that push back against these forces, often paying with their lives and livelihoods. The judge that handed Qadri the death sentence was forced to flee the country. In revenge for Qadri’s hanging, a suicide bomber attacked a court in Peshawar, killing 10 people.

Nowhere is this truer than in Balochistan, the historically impoverished, underdeveloped, and restive province of Pakistan that has seen a persistent separatist movement. Successive civilian and military rulers have tried to put down the insurgency, without meeting Baloch demands for greater rights and a more equitable distribution of national wealth. Those struggling for Baloch rights have often found strong allies in the legal community. The judiciary under the Former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry initiated the practice of strongly emphasizing the plight of the Baloch, particularly the case of “missing persons.”

Targeted killings of lawyers have seen a sharp rise in Balochistan in recent months: in June, the principal of a Quetta law college was killed. A week before the August 8 hospital bombing in Quetta, Jahanzeb Alvi, a lawyer, was shot dead by unidentified men. A large number of lawyers gathered in protest at the hospital where Alvi’s body was brought. President of the Balochistan Bar Association, Bilal Kasi demanded the arrest of the killers and took up Alvi’s case. A week later, Kasi himself was shot. In a familiar pattern, hundreds of lawyers had once again gathered at the hospital where Kasi was brought, when a suicide bomber dressed as a lawyer attacked the crowd.

According to Ali Zafar, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, “Lawyers were the targets [in the Quetta attack], because we fight for the rights of the people…they think we will be weakened … I say we will become stronger.”

Such attacks are not limited to Balochistan: on August 4, Therik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the targeted killing of a lower court judge in Rawalpindi. In March 2014, a judge dismissed a case against General Pervez Musharraf who was accused of killing religious students in the “Lal Masjid” counterterrorism operation. In revenge, Taliban suicide bombers attacked the court room, killing the judge and 11 others. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, since 2004, a total of 53 lawyers in Pakistan have been killed and 160 injured; this figure does not include judges, officers of the court, or legal academics.

A majority of Pakistan’s lawyers represent a rare and crucial section of civil society who peacefully and often effectively demands civil rights and democracy. In Pakistan, this wins them few friends. On one hand, the judiciary now stands as the most formidable check on the government and the military establishment, while on the other hand, for Islamic militants, it embodies a secular state organ that issues legal decrees opposed to God’s laws. Militants have been attacking lawyers and courts in a systematic effort to undermine the state’s judicial system, create a vacuum, and to drive courts out of restive parts of the country.

Lawyers have been leading this fight unprotected, and this is widely recognized. One rationale provided for the expanded powers of the controversial military courts in Pakistan is that civilian judges, lawyers, and their families are at a greater risk of intimidation and violence than military officers, yet no progress has been made on improving security for the judiciary. The United States is in a unique position to press the issue of protection of members of the judiciary: the State Department can take up the matter at the next US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue and set aside aid for security measures at courthouses, as a starting point.

The Quetta attack brought into sharp focus this embattled civil society group under siege. Balochistan’s legal community has lost a generation of its lawyers, a blow that will take decades to recover from. But if history serves a lesson, Pakistan’s lawyer-activists will quietly, steadily continue the fight. The United States must lend its support, through aid and diplomacy, as these lawyers march on.

This article originally appeared in The Cipher Brief here.

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