Judges Are Heroes in Pakistan

The heroes in today's Pakistan are not the returning former Prime Ministers-Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif-but the Supreme Court and High Court judges who refused to accept General Musharraf's emergency law putting the Constitution in abeyance. When asked to take a new oath pledging to uphold his "Provisional Constitutional Order," they simply said no. While politicians Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif are making deals with Musharraf to get back into power, these judges are putting principle over power. They may have lost their seats on the bench, but they have won the hearts of millions of Pakistanis.

I got to see a manifestation of this by accompanying a group of activists in Karachi to the home of one of the Sindh High Court Judges, Sarmad Jalal Osmany. The judge was having a dinner party for his colleagues who had also refused to take the oath.

Arriving at the judge's home, the activists--an odd assortment of students, small businessmen, accountants, and journalists--ceremoniously carpeted the entrance with rose petals. Armed with bouquets of flowers, they crammed into the judge's living room. One by one, as the judges arrived, the group gave them a standing ovation. In all, thirteen judges appeared. "It was thrilling to be in their presence," said journalist Nadira Sheralam. "We are so used to a tarnished image of judges throughout our history who have sold out to military regimes and corrupt governments. Here was a group of judges who were putting the interest of the nation above their self interest. I couldn't believe my eyes."

The flowers, each with the name of a particular judge, were accompanied by a letter from the students at the prestigious LUMS management school in Lahore. A recent graduate had flown in from Lahore to Karachi just for the occasion. The activists wiped tears from their eyes as they watched the young lawyer paying homage to the sacrifice of his elders and read the moving letter that ended with a tribute: "For your courage and resolve, for your steadfastness, for your selflessness, we salute you. For carrying on the struggle and showing all of Pakistan what a principled stand really means, we congratulate you. For giving us this glimmer of hope, this tangible inspiration, this possibility of change, we thank you."

The activists said that in their homage to the judges, they were representing the sentiment of the majority of Pakistanis. "Even the flower vendor where we bought the bouquets was moved," journalist Beena Sarwar told the judges. When he found out who the flowers were for, he insisted on sending a bouquet himself, 'with love to the judges.'"

The group spent about an hour chatting with the judges, with much laughter and good-hearted banter. It was a rare scene, since judges normally lead very secluded lives because of the nature of their work. They told stories about being put under house arrest after the emergency law was declared on November 3. And they talked with pride about the fact that most of the judges-at both the Supreme Court and the provincial Sindh High Court-refused to take the oath. At the Supreme Court, only 5 of the 17 judges went along with Musharraf's emergency measures.

With the future uncertain, the judges have no idea whether they will ever be able to retake their positions. But the goal of the legal community and their supporters is to pressure the government to restore the Constitution and reinstate the Judiciary.

"Restoring the Constitution and reinstating these judges to the highest courts in the land is more important than elections," said attorney Tammy Haque. "An independent judiciary is the basis for a democratic state. Without it, you can have all the elections you want, but you won't have a democracy."

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. She is on a fact-finding mission to Pakistan. To learn more, see www.codepinkalert.org.

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