Pakistan’s missing people and judge Chaudhry

March 21, 2009

Among the black-suited crowd celebrating Pakistani judge Iftikhar Chaudhry’s reinstatement as the head of the Supreme Court outside his home in Islamabad this week was a  woman with a bouquet in her hand and a prayer in her heart.

Amina Janjua’s husband went missing in July 2005, one of hundreds that rights activists allege have been held without judicial process in secret detentions centres as Pakistan’s part in the campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Her husband’s case was one of the dozens that Chaudhry had taken up in his campaign to fix accountability for the missing people, before he was sacked in November 2007.

As the chief judge, regarded as a hero after an opposition-backed lawyers’ protest movement forced the government to  back down, returns to his seat on the top court this weekend, the hopes of people such as Amina are high.

“He is going to reopen those cases, and our near and dear ones will be back home soon,” India’s Hindu newspaper quoted her saying in a report from Islamabad. Amina  is now leading a movement by the families of the missing, which include people from Baluchistan to Punjab.

Can the judge, returning to the bench for the third time, deliver ? Or will his campaign to find out the whereabouts of Pakistan’s missing put him in direct conflict again with the security establishment? What of the United States, ultimately blamed by Pakistanis for many of these disappearances?

Chaudhry must insist on holding the establishment accountable, writes Ali Khan of the U.S.-based Washburn University School of Law in the Jurist, just as he tried to do when Pakistan was under military rule. The constitutional rights and freedoms of Pakistani citizens were severely compromised and hundreds disappeared without trace, he said. By demanding accountability for the missing persons, the Chaudhry court refused to allow the state to trample over fundamental rights.

“This accountability is particularly critical amidst the hype of terrorism. The Supreme Court led by Chaudhry cannot presume that the democratically-elected government holds a valid license to compromise constitutional rights and freedoms to fight terrorism. No government may lawfully commit torture, engage in extra-judicial killings, and allow foreign agents to abduct persons with or without the connivance of domestic intelligence agencies. Even deportations and extraditions of ‘terrorists’ must require due process of law,” he says.

What if the chief judge decided to put former President Pervez Musharraf on trial for these and other acts? The Counter Terrorism blog quotes a senior Pakistani military commander as saying there was real concern about the future of Pakistan, should Chaudhry reopen cases that have been left dormant for over a year. The military is not going to like Musharraf, a former arrmy chief, ridiculed publicly, he says. 

He also notes that for all of Chaudhry’s towering image in the public mind, he had supported the coup that Musharraf carried out against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

(Reuters photo of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry)

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