Dramatic events in both Pakistan and Thailand during the past year have brought their respective judiciaries to the centre of national politics. Judges and lawyers in Pakistan have played a heroic role in challenging the authority of the army, while those in Thailand have done nothing to address the country’s military leadership and its objectives.
On May 29, Pakistan’s top judge lodged an unprecedented complaint about his attempted dismissal, before his own court. In the historic affidavit, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry described how on March 9 he was called to meet General Pervez Musharraf and in the presence of other army officers and officials, the general-cum-president asked him to resign over some unsubstantiated allegations. When he refused, he was detained for five hours while another judge was appointed in his stead. As he attempted to go back to court, his car was stopped and he was forced to return to his residence where he found police and other authorities cutting off his telephone, television, and Internet connections. His official vehicles were also trucked off.
In subsequent days Chief Justice Chaudhry found that his chambers had been entered and files removed, his office and house staff detained and questioned, his colleagues and peers prevented from meeting him, and his home apparently bugged. However, he refused to succumb and was able to mount a defense against his dismissal. However, he was not alone as most of the country’s senior judges and thousands of lawyers came to his support. They not only protested against the treatment meted to him but also demanded his reappointment (see photo above). His petition against the president has been accepted, and a full court case is now set to ensue, where many other details of the military’s attempts to dominate the judiciary could be revealed.
Meanwhile, risking their lives, Pakistan’s judges and lawyers have stimulated a huge outcry of discontent against the military. The chief justice and his advocates have been attacked and threatened with death. Their houses have been fired upon and at least one court official was killed after refusing to support the government. Travelling to Lahore, they were met by tens of thousands of cheering villagers along the entire distance. The next trip had to be aborted as the army and its political allies initiated mob violence in Karachi, preventing the chief justice from leaving the airport and besieging the city’s courts. However, it did little to deter the protesting judges and lawyers.
Compare this with what has happened in Thailand since last September, when the armed forces again took control of government. The generals saw no necessity of threatening the judges who turned up for work as usual and followed whatever they were instructed to do. No questions were asked about the legality of the coup and no objections were uttered when the Constitutional Court was shut down along with the constitution itself. When a new tribunal was needed to dispense victors’ justice and abolish the former ruling party, the judges once again obliged. The president of the Supreme Court in Thailand has so far raised an objection against the army only once, in refusing to join the majority verdict of the tribunal to strip the former prime minister and his party executives of their electoral rights for five years, under an order from the junta, retrospectively applied.
It is important to understand that most part of the judiciary in Pakistan has, like that in Thailand, gone along with the wishes of its military. Since 1954, when the then chief justice endorsed the removal of the prime minister from power by force, it sacrificed its legal principle for political expediency. Chief Justice Chaudhry too was no radical, but did serve with integrity and in recent times had issued notices on cases of public interest, established a human rights cell within the court, and challenged government and military officials over writs concerning alleged abductions and killings by the security forces.
So, why have Pakistan’s judges and lawyers resisted now whereas those in Thailand have not? Maybe, some notion of constitutionalism and judicial independence is still cherished in Islamabad, one that remains foreign to Bangkok. Prior to the 1997 constitution, there was never any concept of a constitutional order in Thailand other than whatever was imposed by the ruling elite. Its senior judges now seem only too eager to revert to that earlier model, perhaps thinking that it will not do them any harm personally. However, they are wrong because by failing to take a stand and by going along with the army, they have caused a self-inflicted wound. With the eyes of the world on them, they have only succeeded in joining the generals to mock themselves.
Given the chance, what might the judges and lawyers of Pakistan say to their counterparts in Thailand right now? We have a clue from the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, who remarked on May 26 that, “The great American jurist Benjamin N. Cardozo said, ‘The great tides and currents which engulf the rest of men do not turn aside in their course and pass the judges by.’ We are all caught in that same tide today, and only our own actions now will determine whether we sink or swim. Those that do not learn from the past are condemned to relive it.”
Thailand’s judiciary too should pay heed.
The 2007 Lawyers’ Movement in Pakistan, AHRC & Pakistan Bar Council: http://pakistan.ahrchk.net/chiefjustice/
Human Rights Solidarity (March 2007)—Pakistan’s lawyers revolt: http://www.hrsolidarity.net/mainfile.php/2006vol16no02