Pakistan’s legal system sputtered back to life Monday, a week after angry lawyers protesting emergency rule brought it to its knees with nationwide strikes.
Enraged by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s purging of the independent judiciary, the black-suited lawyers have become a symbol of opposition, facing baton-wielding riot police and demanding reinstatement of Supreme Court judges fired by the government.But fearing a loss of popular support, lawyers have now returned to district courts.”People are facing problems and cases are piling up so we decided that we should return to ease people’s suffering,” said Zahid Mahmood Raja, former secretary general of the Islamabad Bar Association.Lawyers will continue one-hour rallies each day and will strike every Thursday until the constitution is restored, Raja said. They will also keep boycotting provincial high courts and the Supreme Court whose judges had to take new oaths after Musharraf declared the emergency on Nov. 3, he said.Hundreds of lawyers remain under arrest — many picked up during an initial spate of protests that were crushed by authorities in major cities last week. Others have been forced to stay away from their homes as police lie in wait there with detention orders.Still, Islamabad’s legal district was bustling again Monday. Document drafters were clacking away at typewriters, streetside photocopiers were whirring and lawyers’ arguments echoed in courtrooms.Even before the strike called by bar associations, there were vast backlogs of cases in Pakistan’s overburdened legal system that often drag on for years.Court officials in Karachi said there is a backlog of around 80,000 cases in the southern province of Sindh alone, some dating back 20 years or more.Suspects in police lockups and those awaiting trial and bail hearings have been the main victims of the latest stoppages. Under Pakistani law, suspects are meant to appear before a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. But during the strike, suspects were arriving in court and then sent straight back to their cells without a hearing.”Definitely the prisoners who are innocent and can be acquitted after trial are suffering,” a judge in Islamabad said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.The final appeals of death row inmates still hang in the balance because the high courts, where their fates are decided, remain shut, the judge said.Musharraf has accused top judges — particularly Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry who has become a figurehead for the legal community and was deposed on Nov. 3 — of interfering with the government’s work and hampering its efforts against Islamic militants by releasing terror suspects.Yet most clients asked by a reporter Monday supported the lawyers’ strike.”This is the government’s fault,” Bashir Masih, 44, said outside an Islamabad district court, waiting for his son Nadeem’s bail hearing over a robbery charge to begin. It had been delayed four times by the weeklong strike. “We are suffering but we are with the lawyers,” Masih said.Across the road from the rows of courtrooms, Gul Khan, 37, shook his head as he calculated how much the strike had cost his photocopying and translation business. Khan said his daily takings slumped from 2,000 rupees (US$33) to 1,000 rupees (US$16), but had recovered by about 20 percent on Monday.Still Khan, who was himself detained for a night for joining a lawyers’ protest last week, said the nation’s future was more important. “This is support for my country, not for the lawyers,” Khan said.A senior lawyer, Raja Alim Abassi, said the struggle for an independent judiciary would be long and difficult.He urged the public that has resisted joining street protests — banned under the emergency — to join them.”This is the last opportunity for the people of Pakistan to come forward,” he said. Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.