As soon as we arrived in Lahore, Pakistan on November 30, Tighe Barry and I-both human rights activists from the United States--called the wife of the most prominent lawyer in Pakistan today, Aitzaz Ahsan. Ahsan is under house arrest, but his wife, Bushra, invited us to come by their office the following day.
The law office of Aitzaz Ahsan is connected to his home. When we arrived, the building was surrounded by 10 policemen. We entered the office and had a long chat with Bushra. She told us that her husband had been in jail for 21 days, and was then placed under house arrest. He was not allowed to leave the house, and visitors were not allowed in. I asked her if we could try. She smiled and escorted us to the door connecting the home and office.
A sign on the door read "Sub-jail," and two officers were guarding the door. We greeted them and asked to be allowed in. "We have come all the way from the United States to meet Aitzaz Ahsan," I said politely. "Can we please meet with him?" The jailors wouldn't budge.
Later in the day, about 60 members of Lahore's civil society staged a rally outside the house. Their signs read, "Free Aitzaz Ahsan," "Restore the Judiciary", "We want democracy." They stayed outside the house for about an hour, chanting and singing. The crowd included lawyers in their traditional black jackets, businessmen in their suits, professional women in their colorful "shalwar kamiz," even several children. They were certainly not a dangerous-looking crowd.
Neither is Aitzaz Ahsan, who suddenly appeared on the balcony to the delight of the protesters. He was not allowed to speak to them, but he raised his hand in a peace sign, and the crowd roared "Long Live Aitzaz."
The 62-year-old, gray-haired, bespeckled Ahsan who is president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, looks like a mild-mannered professor but to President Musharraf, he's a dangerous man. He defended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, when Musharraf fired him back in March. Ahsan won the battle, Chaudhry was reinstated, and Musharraf was furious.
That was just the beginning. Ahsan, emboldened, took a case against Musharraf up to the Supreme Court, arguing that Musharraf could not legally be both president and army chief. The court was just about to decide the case when Musharraf clamped down and imposed emergency rule on November 3. While the pretext was the need to counter Islamic militants, the government instead arrested thousands of lawyers, journalists and members of civil society, and fired the independent judges.
Most of those arrested have been released, but a few key lawyers such as Ahsan remain in detention, and the independent judges have not been reinstated. That's why the demands of civil society are not just to lift the emergency law, as Musharraf now says he will do on December 16, but also to release all those arrested, restore the independent judiciary and restore freedom of the press. Most members of civil society are calling for a boycott of the elections until these conditions are met.
Pervez Musharraf has taken off his uniform to please the West, but he is still no democrat. In the past month, his regime has shamefully beaten and jailed thousands of this nation's best and brightest. Equally shameful is the fact that the Bush administration continues to back him, instead of backing the democratic civil society struggling under his grip.
Aitzaz Ahsan is now a symbol in Pakistan of the people's struggle for democracy. That's why we decided to sit outside his door, his "subjail", in protest of his continued detention, in protest of our government's backing of a dictator, and most of all, in support of the Pakistani people.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. Benjamin and CODEPINK activist Tighe Barry are staging a 24-hour vigil outside the home of Aitzaz Ashan in Lahore, Pakistan from December 2-3.. For more information see www.codepinkalert.org.