The Pakistan Chief Justice Story: A Personal Narrative
The Pakistan Chief Justice Story: A Personal Narrative

JURIST Contributing Editor Ali Khan of Washburn University School of Law, recently returned from his native Pakistan, shares the story of his personal involvement in some of the circumstances leading up to the March 9 suspension of Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry…


On March 9, 2007, I was visiting with a Pakistan Supreme Court Justice in Islamabad when the news broke that President Musharraf had in effect fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The news came as a surprise to both of us, particularly to me because I had been part of the Chief Justice story for the past several days—or so it seemed in hindsight.

Speaking about the Chief Justice

On March 5, I spoke about “Human Rights in the United States” to a gathering of law students at Pakistan College of Law in Lahore. A Supreme Court advocate who had arranged my speech at the law college, and other lawyers, had been telling me the woeful state of the judiciary in Pakistan. The judges, I was told, are corrupt from top to bottom: favoritism is rampant, incompetence is blatant, and justice is bought and sold like turnips.

In my speech, I told the students that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks it was no fun to be a Muslim in the United States and that “our mosques are under surveillance.” I however expressed hope that the American judiciary might be able to reverse the human rights impairment. Turning my speech to Pakistan, I theorized that Pakistan is not a state but a nation of families. I argued that even the Chief of the Army Staff or the Chief of the Judiciary would “kill” and ignore laws to promote his family. There, I stumbled on to the Chief Justice story and told the audience how deeply I was disappointed to learn that the Chief Justice had used his influence to have his son recruited for a federal position for which he was not qualified—a story that the Pakistani media had minced for months. I told the students, however, that we as lawyers must not blindly believe what we hear in the media. Ironically, though, I myself was blaming the Chief Justice without critically assessing the gossip I had heard.

On March 7, I spoke to law students at the Quaid-e-Azam Law College in Lahore. There, I did mention that Pakistan is a nation of families but dropped the Chief Justice story. I thought I had no business fanning stories in a country that takes rumors seriously and acts upon them.

Learning about the Chief Justice

The same day, I received new insights into the Chief Justice story. I had lunch with the Vice President of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar, who greatly admires the Chief Justice and strongly believes “that the Chief is acting for the good of the country and that his judicial activism is exposing the rotten policies of the Musharraf juggernaut.” The other lawyer at lunch, however, grumbled that “the Chief Justice dismisses the case by throwing the file at the lawyer arguing before him.” Both agreed, however, that some high court judges receive thousands of dollars to decide cases. When a court postponed the hearing in a case, I was told, one of the litigants complained: “Why is my case not decided today? I have given a lot of money to the lawyer and to you, judge!” As a bewildered American, I fantasized bringing judicial freedom to this wretched country, but then I thought of the failed invasion to bring democracy to Iraq.

A mysterious force appeared to be bringing me closer to the people who are or would be closely tied to the Chief Justice story. On the evening of March 7, I met with the former President of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar (a lawyer who is now defending the Chief Justice before the Supreme Judicial Council) at his Lahore chambers. As a champion of democracy and the rule of law, the former President was adamantly opposed to the Musharraf regime. However, he had a soft corner for the Chief Justice and greatly appreciated the Chief’s judicial activism, including his decision to reverse the sale of Pakistan Steel Mill to government cronies. Even in this sitting, I got the impression that judicial integrity in Pakistan has deteriorated beyond belief and that even high court judges are recruited through shady political deals. (There are no legislative hearings on the appointment of high court judges in Pakistan.) When the country’s head honcho (General Musharraf) seized power lawlessly, it was the Supreme Court that legitimized the coup. In Pakistan everything is open to trading. I began to understand that the Chief Justice story is layered with corruption, incompetence, cynicism, and that judicial activism is mere frosting on a rotten cake.

The Day the Chief Justice is Fired

On March 8, I drove to Islamabad accompanied by a friend, a cousin/driver, and a nephew. During this trip, I was hoping to meet with S. S. Pirzada, the Legal Advisor to the President/Prime Minister–an 80+ years old jurist who has been an integral part of Pakistan’s constitutional history and who can change the constitution, as they say, “with the stroke of his pen.” (One media story asserts that the Chief Justice had been overly polite to Pirzada when he appeared before the Supreme Court, possibly to win favors with the government.)

On the morning of March 9, I called Pirzada’s office to express my wishes to meet with him. I was told that the Legal Advisor was in a high level meeting and that it was impossible to meet with him “today.” To my great surprise, I received a call on my cell phone that the Legal Advisor would like to have lunch with me at the Islamabad Club–a place where politicians, government officials, and diplomats meet, dine, chat, backbite, and weave scandals on unsubstantiated rumors.

After the Friday prayer, I met with Pirzada for lunch. We talked for nearly two hours about a host of things except the Chief Justice. The Legal Advisor was indeed in a meeting all morning with President Musharaff–one to one. I thought it inappropriate to ask the Legal Advisor about his meeting with the President. That the Chief Justice was being fired that very hour was not even in my wildest imagination.

I now wonder what Pirzada was thinking during our lunch conversation. Pirzada is the calmest man you can meet. Nothing seems to disturb him. He is wise, sharp, unassuming, deferential, and in good health. (He likes President George W. Bush and believes that President Bush is good for Pakistan. I kidded with him that I would like to see Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas as the next US President. Pirzada is not opposed to any Republican becoming the next President.) I cannot tell what advice, if any, Pirzada gave to President Musharraf on the firing of the Chief Justice.

As I left the Islamabad Club, I received a phone call that my friend, the Supreme Court Justice, would like to see me at his residence. I dropped my nephew at the Supreme Court building with a lawyer I knew (to wait for me there) while my cousin/driver drove me to the Judges Enclave — a residential block on a hill in Islamabad reserved for Justices of the Supreme Court. Within fifteen minutes of my visit with the Justice, the phone rang and someone broke the news to the Justice’s family. Everybody was surprised. We turned on GEO (a TV station) to get more news. Within minutes, the security forces began to arrive to the Justices Enclave. They had already surrounded the Supreme Court building. I called my nephew who was now stranded in the Supreme Court building. He was thrilled, having become part of the now rapidly-unfolding story. He said in an excited voice: “The lawyers inside and outside the buildi
ng are forming a revolt. I wonder what is going to happen.”

Ali Khan is a professor at Washburn University School of Law in Kansas. His publications are available here.
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