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Freedoms curtailed but for how long?

06 February, 2008

Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, Ali Ahmed Kurd and former Justice Tariq Mehmud, the main leaders of the movement for independence of judiciary and rule of law in the country, have been finally set free at the end of their 90-day incarceration at their residences.

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To keep them detained any longer required endorsement by a judicial review under Article 10 of the Constitution, which was not sought, may be, because the government had no case against them. Yet the Punjab home department showed extraordinary eagerness to extend the detention of Aitzaz Ahsan, creating in the process an ugly scene extensively watched in Pakistan and abroad.

It was disgusting to see country's top lawyer being jostled by the police who had no legal authorisation to stop him from moving around after his 90-day questionable imprisonment was over. Almost simultaneous release of the firebrand lawyer from Quetta, Ali Ahmad Kurd, and former judge Tariq Mehmud from his residence in Islamabad, was less dramatic but equally painful to accept.

However, their freedom turned out to be an ephemeral event as Aitzaz Ahsan was intercepted by the police at Lahore airport on Saturday as he wanted to go to Naudero to offer 'fateha' at the graveside of Benazir Bhutto. According to another report the trio have been again detained at their abodes.

That they acquitted themselves like heroes from this ordeal, however, does not reduce the ferocity of challenges that still confront their community. Nor has their incarceration served in any way the government's avowed purpose to weaken the lawyers' robust campaign to seek fuller restoration of judiciary to its pre-November 3, position.

In the days and weeks to come the obtaining fierce stand-off between the government and the lawyers' community over a host of constitutional and political issues is likely to intensify, spilling over unto the political situation which is not tranquil either.

Though lawyers have decided to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections, it is inconceivable that their movement, which gets a clear fillip from the release of their leaders, would not impact the political scenario. Let that be as it comes.

But it is Barrister Ahsan's call for a boycott of the PCO judges that needs to be rationalised and made palatable to the litigant public. Some debate on this is already underway between various segments of the community and it is hoped a modus vivendi would be found to ensure a pragmatic balance between the spirit of the movement and litigants' rights.

What is mind boggling is why the deposed justices have been kept under de facto detention at their residences. Since November 3 last year most of the justices who refused to take oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) are being held incommunicado at their residences.

In some cases, even members of their families, including women and children too, have been made prisoners with them. Only the other day senior justice Rana Bhagwandas was stopped from leaving his residence in Karachi by a heavy posse of stick-wielding police. There are also reports that some of them are being threatened with expulsion from their residences - in a telling contrast to the case of hundreds of retired government servants who are allowed to keep the allotted official accommodations for months after their retirement.

But it is doubtful if their will and determination to stand up to the forces that want their submission have been broken. A case in point is the recent tit for tat match between President Musharraf and deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry over who did what to whom. But surely in the process the already abounding instability and uncertainty on the national political scene. How long can the government keep these justices detained and what is the guarantee that on release they would not become part of the lawyers' movement for independence of judiciary and rule of law?

Thanks to the official sharpshooter's zeroing in Justice Chaudhry has acquired the status of a national icon. Set free he will walk at the head of tens of thousands of marchers. But that would be within the ambit of his right protected by the constitution. That can be delayed but not totally averted. But keeping them detained is a national shame we all would like to escape from.


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