Saturday, August 22, 2009
Are Pakistan's Uncivil Lawyers above the Law?
After elevating the lawyers to very high stature, the "civil society" including foreign-funded NGOs and their media and politician cheerleaders in Pakistan have recently witnessed a string of unprovoked physical attacks by lawyers on law-enforcement officials and media men. While some of the lawyers and their supporters dismiss such incidents as isolated and involving only a few bad apples, the fact is that such violent behavior has repeatedly been displayed by Pakistani lawyers, particularly in Lahore, for at least two years or more. In the last month, there have been 18 cases of assaults carried out by lawyers in Lahore alone, according to superintendent Sohail Sukhera of Lahore police force. "In one case, lawyers broke the leg of a police inspector. Others have had their skulls exposed when lawyers have hit them on the head with stones or chair legs. It's really uncalled for."
While violence by lawyers has grown in terms of numbers of incidents and intensity, the phenomenon is not new. First, during anti-Musharraf protests in Islamabad in 2007, there were repeated scenes on television that showed anti-Musharraf lawyers viciously beating up a few Musharraf supporters carrying pro-Musharraf placards outside the Supreme Court building.
Then, there was an attack on former minister Sher Afgan Niazi by lawyers outside Lahore High Court last year. While there was no expectation from the politicians to be truthful and take responsibility for lawyers violence, it was a pleasant surprise to see Mr. Aitazaz Ahsan show a sense of responsibility by resigning. However, barely 24 hours after the resignation, Mr. Ahsan backtracked and used "conspiracy theories" and "invisible hands" and placed the blame on his favorite target: President Musharraf.
Recently, media men and policemen have been the target of violence in Lahore. As the BBC reported recently, "These days, their footage is all over the Pakistani news channels. Lawyers, dressed in black suits and ties, on the attack. Every few days seem to bring a new incident; the beating of a policeman; a scuffle with members of the press outside the high court in Lahore."
Let's examine the reality of the "esteemed" legal profession in Pakistan in a little more depth:
1. After claiming the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan as the goal of their protest movement against Musharraf and Zardari, the lawyers have repeatedly proved by their behavior time and again that they think they are above the law.
2. In most international opinion surveys on professional ethics, lawyers consistently rank near the bottom. They are slightly below the journalists and above the politicians and used car salesmen in how they are perceived by the general public worldwide. If the recent success of the movie "Michael Clayton" is any indication, the public perception of lawyers breaks down into four archetypes, each represented by a character in the movie: brutal (Sydney Pollack), disappointed (George Clooney), psychotic (Tom Wilkinson) and criminal (Tilda Swinton). It’s probably no coincidence that Clayton’s only Oscar went to Swinton.
3. According to a Transparency International survey, the judiciaries of India and Pakistan fare among the worst, with 77 per cent and 55 per cent of respondents in the two countries, respectively, describing the judicial system as corrupt.
4. In most of the rest of the world, the judges are generally perceived as honest. But not in South Asia. According to Transparency International surveys, the Pakistani judiciary is considered the third most corrupt institution after police and power departments. Even the taxation and customs people are regarded as more honest than the judges. Among the four provincial governments, the Transparency survey ranks Punjab (the hub of the lawyers movement) as the most corrupt and NWFP the least corrupt.
5. Pakistani judiciary, including Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who legitimized Musharraf's overthrow of Nawaz Sharif's elected government in 1999 by taking the oath of office under PCO-I, has a long and inglorious history of undermining the laws and the constitution of Pakistan. This scribe has had personal experience with the individual judges of the highest courts showing little respect for the rule of law and engaging in corrupt practices and nepotism in their own personal lives for petty gains.
The lawyers' violence is becoming so ugly that the media people, who were lawyers' closest allies opposing Musharraf, have now turned against the lawyers themselves. "The media is trying to show all lawyers in a bad light. And there are others who benefit through making us look bad," complains Raja Hanif, 33, a member of Lahore High Court Bar. However, Mr. Hanif says nothing about any disciplinary action the lawyers' body should take to punish the misbehaving lawyers for their unprofessional conduct.
Now that Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, known for frequent suo moto actions, is back on the bench as the chief justice of Pakistan, it's important for him to act to preserve the dignity of the legal profession in Pakistan.
Here's a videoclip of lawyers attacking a police officer in Lahore:
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