Case study: The lawyers movement in Pakistan

Originally published on

The Challenge

In March 2007, military dictator General Pervez Musharraf unconstitutionally deposed the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhary. This caused the lawyers community to take to the streets, and in July 2007, the Chief Justice was restored to office by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

However, on November 3, 2007, Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in Pakistan, primarily due to the controversy that surrounded his reelection. He introduced a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), that suspended the constitution, dismissed 60 judges, and required the rest of the judiciary to take an oath. The emergency was lifted by December 15 of the same year. The judges, however, were not reinstated.

What was the lawyers’ goal? In the longer term, to establish the rule of law in Pakistan by safeguarding the constitution and keeping the judiciary independent and in the short term to get the judges reinstated.

The Players

The movement was primarily started by the lawyers community of Pakistan who wanted to support the rule of law, respect for the constitution and one of the essentials of a democratic state: independence of the judiciary. The lawyers played a principal role in educating the Pakistani people about the issue and mobilizing support.

The lawyers were also supported by Pakistan’s civil society, including professionals as well as businessmen and traders, who were an added voice.

After a long time, Pakistani students, highly inspired by the struggle of the lawyers and the civil society, became involved in the movement. I was also a high school student at the time. Frustrated with the inconveniences and issues caused by the emergency that had been imposed, my friends and I joined.

Many effective youth groups such as Students for Restoration of Democracy in Pakistan,Pakistan Youth Alliance were also formed during these days, mainly through social networking, especially Facebook. These organizations continue to play an important role in raising awareness regarding democracy in Pakistan.

The Tools and Tactics

The print and electronic media played a major role in educating the public about the lawyers movement and relevant issues – but its role was mostly restricted to awareness building. Moreover, at the height of the movement, the dictatorial regime of General Musharraf, and later President Zardari’s democratic government, put curbs on the media. Several TV channels reporting the protests and discussing the movement were taken off air.

At such times, one of the strongest and most useful tools for mobilisation was SMS. One text message informing of the time and venue of a demonstration would go viral, and plenty of times the venue would be amassed even before the scheduled time, something unusual of public gatherings locally.

This is also when we began to use social media most effectively. We especially used the event component of Facebook, which allowed organizers to estimate the number of people attending the demonstration, and prepare posters and venue accordingly.

As high school students, my friends and I also co-authored articles and blogs to explain why our activism was needed. We quoted the parts of the constitution that mandated freedom of expression, speech, and assembly, further explaining that the risks were worth taking for the benefit the outcome would have for us.

A lot of us used to tie a black ribbon on our sleeves at school as well as outside, in order to educate as well as encourage others to join us. The message was simple: our strength is in numbers.

The Stumbling Blocks

Section 144 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which outlaws the assembly of four or more people together, was often imposed first by Musharraf, and later by the PPP-led coalition government, effectively legitimising arrests of peaceful demonstrators.

Extensive censorship of the media was also attempted by both these governments to hinder the public from learning of the events and going out on the streets. The climax of protest against media censorship was when the Federal Minister for Information Sherry Rehman resigned on March 13, 2009 in protest of the banning of some television channels ordered by President Zardari despite promises of granting media freedom.

Containers were installed around the ‘red zone’, which is the main administrative area of the Pakistani government (it hosts the Presidency, the national Assembly, as well as the Supreme Court). That’s where the demonstrators of the long march for the restoration of the judiciary whocame into Islamabad from across Pakistan were meant to gather on March 15 of 2009. Several arrests of those leading the movement were made throughout the lawyers movement, including Aitzaz Ahsan, Ahmed Ali Kurd, as well as opposition politicians like Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif.

The Outcome

One protest rally in Islamabad was composed of mostly students along with some civil society activists. It was carried out during the emergency rule when assembly of more than four people in public was being imposed. Protesters gathered on the main road that led up to the President’s house. Most parents – including mine – were unaware of their children’s participation. We didn’t tell anyone we were participating for fear that they would stop us.

Our resolve was strong, and we braved the encirclement of our rally by police forces that outnumbered us. Our lips were sealed with duct-tape, our national flags held high. The day culminated in a brutal assault with bamboo sticks locally known as ‘lathis’ – some victims were as young as fourteen years old.

After many rallies like this one, however, enough support had been gathered through the country that people were marching from throughout Pakistan towards Islamabad. The government had installed huge containers to hamper demonstrators from entering the red zone, but they soon realised that the movement was a force beyond their control, and before all the demonstrators could reach the capital, the Supreme Court judges were reinstated, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary.

Thousands of Pakistanis across the country rejoiced at this final triumph, with non-stop visits to the Chief Justice at his official residence for weeks afterwards. In the months since the success of the lawyers’ movement, however, Pakistani civil society and youth activists have faced huge challenges in trying to grow the movement that into a one that has broader goals and is longer lasting. It remains as difficult as ever compel people to protest in Pakistan, and it is a highly divided and combustible society, which you can read about here.

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