News / Asia

Pakistan's Highest Court Loses Independent Chief

Pakistani lawyers hold up a poster of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as they mark his retirement outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Dec. 11, 2013.
Pakistani lawyers hold up a poster of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as they mark his retirement outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Dec. 11, 2013.
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Ayaz Gul
— Pakistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry retired on Wednesday. The fiercely independent judge played a key role in establishing independence of the judiciary in Pakistan and led a nationwide legal movement that forced out a military ruler. But Chaudhry’s tenure was not free of controversies.

In 2007, Chaudry rose to prominence when he increasingly questioned attempts by then-president, General Pervez Musharraf, to cling to power.

The military ruler asked the judge to step down.  Chaudhry refused. That kind of defiance was unprecedented in Pakistan where the judiciary was long seen as pro-army.

Musharraf later fired him and hundreds of other judges by imposing a state of emergency. The controversial move triggered nationwide street protests.

The galvanized opposition led to the election defeat of Musharraf’s political allies, eventually forcing the once powerful military leader to step down and allowing the judges to return.

In a report this month, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said Chaudhry's tenure strengthened human rights in Pakistan. 

“An independent judiciary is crucial for human rights and there is no doubt that the Pakistan judiciary began to hold the executive branch in particular to account and for many Pakistanis the Supreme Court came to be seen as a beacon of hope for ending corruption and for imposing justice. No question about that,” said Sam Zarifi, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists. 

Under Chaudhry, the Supreme Court intervened in matters ranging from traffic regulations to civil service appointments and even questioned contracts between the government and foreign companies - one of the reasons experts cite for declining foreign investment in Pakistan.

And instead of reforming the judiciary, some critics say that Chaudhry ignored many human rights cases and focused only on high-profile ones. 

“The lawyers had hoped that they would come back as a reformed court with some humility and wisdom but we did not expect that they are going to come back to gain power," said Asma Jehangir, a senior attorney who took cases before the Supreme Court. "I think the courts are not there to show that they are powerful but they are effective. So, for us as lawyers we feel that many of our clients and litigants have not got justice because their cases have not been heard because the chief justice was too busy doing high visibility cases.”

Still the Supreme Court’s fight with the military and its intelligence agencies over rights abuses was widely praised. Pakistani security forces have been frequently accused of detaining suspects without charging them, citing a need to combat terrorism.

Under Chaudhry, the court consistently demanded the authorities reveal the whereabouts of hundreds of missing people who relatives allege were held by security personnel.

But court monitors like Zarifi say the court did not go far enough.

“While the court has been very effective and active in trying to set in place the identification of those subjected to enforced disappearances when it comes to actual accountability, the court has been very, very strangely reluctant. We still have not seen any members of the security forces held to account despite very clearly being implicated,” he said.

Chaudhry's designated successor, Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, is described by legal observers as “a gentleman” and expect him to steer clear of intervening in government policy. But attorney Jehangir says that may not be easy.

“I am hoping that it will be better," she said. "There is a very thin line between justice through a process and rough and easy justice. Now he [Chaudhry] has left that taste of rough and easy justice in the public, which means that the judiciary that is going to succeed him will have a very tough time.”

Jillani will take the oath of office on Thursday.

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