Raising the Bar

May 18, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Jo Baker meets a lawyer who backed Pakistan’s rebel judiciary, and lost more than his freedom

People have given up all kinds of things for their country, but Pakistani lawyer Muneer Malik’s forfeit was both brutal and peculiar. The more predictable sacrifices had already been made – his family were harassed, his colleagues beaten and his freedom temporarily taken away – but in solitary confinement in Pakistan’s notorious Attock Fort last November, Malik’s jailers chose to deprive him of one more thing: working kidneys. Who exactly was behind his poisoning, whether it was deliberate and whether, as some people believe, it was a murder attempt, has yet to come to light.

Earlier that year the Pakistan courts had been in disarray. Cases for ‘disappeared’ persons were piling up, corruption scandals were rife and Supreme Court judges were growing uncomfortably close to the cabinet of General Pervez Musharraf. It was unhappiness that led Malik to leave his practice in 2006, and run for president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

“I thought that those were going to be defining years in terms of the democratic struggle in Pakistan,” he remembers, sitting in an office at the Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Commission this week, his hands gently folded in his lap and a slight American twang to his accent. He was in Hong Kong to pick up the commission’s third Human Rights Defender award. “Musharraf had made a set of rules that were tailor-made to advance the interests of the elite. It was time to for the Bar to reassert its independence and take up a pro-people stance on these issues. With someone like my predecessor [Malik Mohammad Qayyum] in the role – well – I wasn’t confident that would happen.”

Little did he know just how definitive the next year would prove. Not long into the lawyer’s new post, Musharraf summoned the nation’s Chief Justice, Iftekhar Mohammad Chaudhry – a proud, unpopular man with a penchant for pomp – and fired him. The two had worked closely in the past, but some of the judge’s recent rulings had ruffled the wrong feathers. Chaudhry, however, refused to go.  Malik and the other lawyers had often been at loggerheads with the Chief Justice, but at that moment, he says, the situation rose above character flaws. “There were these telling images on television,” says Malik, “The General in uniform, admonishing the Chief Justice in full court dress; the moment I saw those I knew that this was an assault on the judiciary, and whether I liked [Chaudhry] or not we had to take a very firm stance. History has had it that you can’t stand up against Generals in Pakistan – they will tighten the screws on you – but he did.”

The nation had paid little attention the last time Pakistan’s judges had been cowed by Musharraff, but with democracy sputtering out so visibly, Malik sensed a change. He was the first to get through to the Chief Justice under house arrest, by tracking down his wife’s cell phone number. “I told him to stay firm and that we would back him to the hilt,” he says. With the support of his bar colleagues, Malik shadowed Chaudhry’s court proceedings, calling press conferences at each step.

The following four months saw boycotts, protests and hunger strikes radiating out from high court houses across the country. Waves of suit-clad lawyers in somber ties would hit the baking tarmac for hours on end; non-essential court proceedings were stopped. “Hunger strikes were one weapon we could use effectively,” remembers Malik.  “We had two people in every Bar Association across Pakistan striking all day, every day. The object was to give as much as we could to the media, so that the people of Pakistan could understand what we were doing and why”. As more civilians joined the protests, Chaudhry fast became a symbol of Pakistan’s potential reform, and an empowered public began to take on the fight as its own.

Malik has vivid memories of the crackdowns; his house was peppered with gun fire one evening, his daughter narrowly escaping harm, and aggression on the streets would come from both uniformed police and military intelligence goons dressed as lawyers. Two lawyers were shot in Karachi. Malik and his peers survived a timed explosion set to greet them in Islamabad. Protests continued to ricochet across the country.

“You always hear of protestors attacking the police with bricks and stones, but this time it would be the police, with tear gas, baton charges, throwing rocks and bricks at protestors,” says Malik. “In one evening torch-lit procession, in one city in Punjab, the police came with small canisters – petrol.  They doused protestors. To this day there are lawyers scarred all over their faces. I happened to meet someone four months after, and his entire left arm reminded me of leprosy: the way his skin was, the burns and scars.”  But progress was being made. At the end of one 25-hour procession to the Lahore High Court, Malik remembers meeting judges who had waited for them all night, sleeping on mats in their chambers. One told him that the movement had finally given them the courage to step up.

At that point Malik wasn’t a total stranger to political protest. The student activism scene at home was quashed in the eighties (and stayed that way until the coalition government formed last month), but  he has fond memories of joining anti-war protests through San Francisco, where he studied. “We were all, hey, hey LBJ, how many people have you killed today?” he remembers, chuckling. Returning to Pakistan, under its various dictatorships, Malik found rebellion a little less overt. “The situation had never sharpened so much so as to result in street agitation, but in our minds, in our writings… in the seminars we’d hold and attend – it was low key opposition to authoritarian rule,” he says.

In a landmark move that summer, after five months, Chief Justice Chaudhry was reinstated by his own colleagues and Malik stepped down that October in a jubilant climate; Musharraf was under increasingly hostile fire from the public and potentially fair elections were on the cards. The feeling didn’t last. He was mid-air a few days later when the State of Emergency was called, and arrested not long after landing in Islamabad. “The order said, ‘You are likely to make speeches which will be inflammatory and create disorder’,” he recalls. “It didn’t say I had done so!” Nevertheless a jail transfer landed him in an isolation cell measuring five by eight feet, with little other than a concrete slab, and a toilet. “It reminded me of a scene in Ben Hur,” he says, grimly. “The window had iron grills that were not netted, and I had no blanket, so at night I lost sleep because of the mosquitoes and the shivering cold.  Food I received through slits in the door.”

This too is where the much disputed incident took place that saw Malik in a government hospital, fighting for his life after nearly a month in jail. Weak from a hunger strike and suffering various aches and pains, he asked for and was given pain relief, then sleeping pills. Then all he can remember are hazy, disjointed scenes of an ambulance and hospitals, as his kidneys shut down. He suffered chronic renal failure for which he still takes medication.

“Calling it a deliberate attempt on my life would be jumping the gun because I have no evidence, but they might have been trying to teach me a lesson, to break my will,” he concurs.  “My conditions were such that the medications that I received would have caused my kidneys to fail, in shock… It was text book.”

The experience fortified him. “Having come so close to kicking the bucket, the only way to go was up,” he notes wryly.  But others, he says, underwent more dramatic changes over the year. Chief Justice Chaudhry, who would once expect motorcades, 21 gun salutes and ‘would be miffed, personally, if an army lieutenant general would be driving a Mercedes and here he was in a Corolla’ has done a 180. “He’s been through the test of fire,” says Malik. “I think what he’s been through, with the way people have flocked, despite failings of his character, standing in line for hours under blazing sun waiting for him – he cannot be but a changed man. He knows now he was on the wrong side of the fence.”  And, having met the newest wave of political leaders, Malik has been pleasantly surprised with Nawaz Sharif, who just this week pulled out from his party’s hard-fought place in the coalition government to protest the delay in reinstating judges who resisted during the emergency.

Now for Malik it’s another day, another award. Picking up his Defender prize, for himself and his SCBA successor Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, before a flight to Korea to accept the 2008 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, Malik dedicated it to Pakistan’s low-paid younger lawyers, who he believes suffered the most hardship during the strike. “The backbone of this struggle has been the ones who still don’t have a vested interest in the system, who look forward to its reform – to honest independent fearless service. The expectations of the public have been changed, because of them,” he says. “I remember that bumper sticker that used to be on cars in America during the Vietnam War: ‘What if they gave a war and nobody came?’ Well if I’d given the call and they weren’t there to back me, then where would we be?”