Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (born 12 December 1948) is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan from 2005 to 2007. Since taking office in June 2005 for an eight-year term, Chief Justice Chaudhry worked overtime to tackle a backlog of cases at the Supreme Court. He also is reported to have taken “forceful action in cases relating to human rights, women and the environment, often coming down hard on senior police and civil officials to enforce the relevant laws.”
He also has ruled on two cases said to have caused the government of Pakistan some embarrassment. In June 2006, he halted the privatization of state-owned Pakistan Steel Mills, citing legal violations in the process of sale by the concerned institutions including the Cabinet Committee on Privatisation, headed by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. He has also pressured Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to disclose the whereabouts of a number of “disappeared” who the government initially denied having detained, a source of significant embarrassment to the Musharraf government.
On Friday, 9 March 2007, General Musharraf summoned Chief Justice Chaudhry to Army House, his official residence in Rawalpindi, and asked him to explain his position on “numerous complaints and serious allegations for misconduct, misuse of authority and actions prejudicial to the dignity of office of the chief justice of Pakistan.” News agencies report that the allegations were then referred to the country’s Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), a five-member panel empowered to probed the conduct of their peers. Musharraf also ordered Chaudry be restrained from performing his official functions and an acting chief justice was appointed. The BBC reports that legal experts in Pakistan doubt the constitutionality of both these orders. Furthermore, details of the charges have not been made public.
Chief Justice Chaudhry appeared before the SJC at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 13 and Friday, March 16. On both days, protests were held in support of the suspended judge. On Friday, high-profile opposition figures and hundreds of lawyers rallied outside the Supreme Court. Many lawyers and judges have been on strike all week, protesting the suspension. There are numerous reports from Islamabad and Lahore of police violence, attacks on reporters and arrests.
Overnight, Thursday before the second hearing, dozens of activists were detained in raids in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, while more than 200 were arrested in Lahore in an apparent attempt to stifle Friday’s protests.
Qazu Hussain Ahmed, leader of the hard-line Islamic coalition, MMA, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, senior Islamic politician, and former president Rafique Tarar were all arrested in protests.
In a serious incident on 16 March, Pakistani riot police stormed the Islamabad office of Geo, a private television channel. Police tear-gassed employees and ransacked the office after Geo defied government attempts to influence their coverage of the protests. Other news agencies in Pakistan have reported attempts to silence coverage of Chaudhry’s case or have had their broadcasts suspended President Musharraf has since personally apologised for the raid on Geo, promising a judicial enquiry into the incident.
The most recent information indicates that the SJC has ordered all restrictions on Chaudhry’s movement suspended. The SJC has also adjourned the hearing of an application filed by the chief justice challenging the constitutionality of the council to March 21. To date, defence lawyers of Chaudhry have complained that they have not been able to meet with the Chief Justice despite an order from the council in this regard. Defence lawyers have also raised concern that no formal charge-sheet against the Chief Justice had been given to them.
At the centre of this case is Chief Justice Chaudhry’s unpopularity with the government of General Musharraf, the judge’s activist stance and the rulings that have previously embarrassed the government. Furthermore, 2007 is an election year in Pakistan. Observers report that: “the government is under pressure to retain its position in parliament and facilitate the re-election of General Musharraf for another term. To avoid any risk, the government has already indicated it may let the present parliament elect General Musharraf and hold elections later. This is inevitably going to lead to legal disputes between the government and the opposition.” Musharraf would require legal sanction to continue to double as army chief following his re-election as president, but Chaudhry is reported to have stated in February that the General could not legally continue as army chief beyond his present term as president.
Chaudhry’s suspension is likely a pre-emptive strike by Musharraf. With the information available, it does appear Chief Justice Chaudhry has been suspended for acting independently. The suspension itself and the hearing may be unconstitutional. It also appears there have been significant restrictions on media coverage and the right to peaceful assembly surrounding this case.
Two lawyers are interviewed regarding their opinion on Chief Justice Chaudhry’s case:
“Pakistan chief justice: Lawyer’s viewpoints.” BBC. 13 March 2007. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6447215.stm].
Detailed reports of violent clashes between police and protesters on Friday from Pakistani English daily newspaper, The Nation:
“Dozens held in day-long clashes.” The Nation. 17 March 2007. [http://www.nation.com.pk/daily/mar-2007/17/index1.php].
The fell text of Chief Justice Chaudhry’s statement before the SJC outlining his objections to the constitutionality of the SJC and describing in detail his treatment since his suspension, which includes restrictions on his movement and communication:
“Full text of CJP’s statement before SJC.” The Nation. 14 March 2007. [http://www.nation.com.pk/daily/mar-2007/14/index8.php].
Reports of lawyers’ support of CJ Chaudhry in online edition of Dawn, a large English-language Pakistani newspaper. Apparent signing of petition by over 70 lawyers in England on March 16, including Queen’s Counsels, Barristers and solicitors who have expressed their concerns about the actions of the government of Pakistan against Chaudhry. I cannot verify this report.
“British lawyers assure support to CJ.” Dawn. 17 March 2007. [http://www.dawn.com/2007/03/17/top7.htm].
Other than the above report from Dawn and lawyer’s groups protesting in Pakistan, I have, so far, found no reports of other human rights or legal groups who have issued statements on the suspension.
Letter by Gail Davidson sent on March 20, 2007