LAT : For Pakistanis, fired justice is symbol of defiance

Monday, November 12, 2007

For Pakistanis, fired justice is symbol of defiance

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer | November 7, 2007

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry is an unlikely folk hero.

The deposed chief justice has a gruff demeanor, a hangdog face, a thick mustache, and is slightly cross-eyed. No one would call him charismatic.

But the 59-year-old has rock-star status in Pakistan, where he has become a prime symbol of defiance of President Pervez Musharraf.

His image adorns posters and T-shirts. Crowds would surround his car, making it difficult for him to move about. Rallies in his support after Musharraf's first attempt to fire him drew some of the biggest turnouts ever here.

Pakistan has spent about half of its 60-year history under military rule, and in openly challenging a leader with near-absolute authority, Chaudhry has done what few others have dared.

On March 9, when Musharraf summoned him to army headquarters and ordered him to resign, the chief justice refused to go quietly. He stuck to that refusal, even when confronted with a roomful of military men insisting that he quit.

Musharraf then suspended him on misconduct charges that the justice's supporters said were trumped up.

Chaudhry was a popular figure even before Musharraf first tried to sideline him. As chief justice of the country's Supreme Court, he had tackled issues that embarrassed the government -- human rights cases, so-called honor killings, a lucrative privatization deal involving the prime minister, secret detentions by the intelligence services.

Protests over his suspension, led by the same lawyers who are now at the forefront of demonstrations against emergency rule, started small, but snowballed. Huge crowds turned out when he traveled to cities around the country to address local bar associations

By May, he was considered such a threat to government interests that a pro-Musharraf party physically prevented him from leaving the airport in Karachi, the country's largest city, where he had flown for an appearance. More than 40 people were killed in street battles that day.

Chaudhry's legal background was not a glamorous one. Born into a lower-middle-class family in the southwestern city of Quetta, he spent years as a jack-of-all-trades provincial lawyer, taking on whatever case came his way.

But he made his way steadily upward, was appointed as a provincial high court justice in 1990, and ascended to the Supreme Court bench in 2000. He became chief justice in 2005.

In the beginning, he wasn't a firebrand. During his early tenure on the high court, he went along with the government, voting with the court majority that validated Musharraf's military coup in 1999 and subsequent appointment as president.

But Chaudhry gradually asserted himself, eventually becoming an intolerable thorn in Musharraf's side. When the general fired him Saturday night after declaring an emergency, the court was days away from ruling on whether Musharraf's election as president last month was valid.

Refusing to take a loyalty oath to Musharraf, Chaudhry was confined to his official residence, surrounded by paramilitary troops. Loyalists anxiously awaited word from him.

When it came, the message was defiant.

"I am under arrest now," he told supporters by telephone. "But soon I will join you in your struggle."