Why are Pakistani lawyers always protesting?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
March 18 2009 11:54 AM

Why Are Pakistani Lawyers Always Protesting?

More on the judicial crisis in Islamabad. 

Lawyers in Pakistan celebrated this week—and canceled a planned march on the capital—after the prime minister announced he would reinstate the country's chief justice. In a November 2007 "Explainer," Michelle Tsai looked at why Pakistani lawyers are so involved in political protests. The article is reprinted below.

Pakistani lawyers protest. Click image to expand.
Lawyers protesting in Pakistan

Lawyers demonstrating in their black suits and ties clashed with police in Pakistan on Monday, two days after Pervez Musharraf declared martial law. In Lahore, about 2,000 lawyers gathered at the high court, even as some news outlets reported 1,500 arrests of lawyers across the country. Why are attorneys leading this round of protests?

Because they want to, and they can. When Musharraf came to power in 1999, he effectively paralyzed the two major political parties that opposed him. The leaders of those groups, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League, went into exile. Other political figures were arrested, and public rallies were generally not permitted. (The gathering of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to greet Bhutto's return in October was a rare exception.) Thus weakened, the parties couldn't lead a mass response to Musharraf's takeover. Lawyers, on the other hand, could circumvent some of the general's restrictions. Since they still had to go to court, lawyers were able to use the courts as public meeting places. They also couldn't be easily targeted as a group, since bar associations carry out necessary functions for the government, like ensuring that local political campaigns follow the rules and authenticating applicants for a national ID card. This appears to have changed, however; one eyewitness said the police were now arresting "anyone wearing the lawyer's uniform."

The black-suited lawyers also had the will to protest, having been incensed by Musharraf's attacks on the constitution and the judicial branch of government. In March, he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had rankled the military by taking on cases involving dissidents and human rights activists. This intervention was received as an attack on the legal profession, and lawyers and other supporters took to the streets in the spring. Chaudhry was reinstated in July, though over the weekend he was placed under house arrest, along with other members of the Supreme Court who refused to uphold Musharraf's provisional constitution. The military also arrested Aitzaz Ahsan, the highly regarded lawyer who successfully defended the chief justice from his suspension earlier this year.


Lawyers and the law have played a central role in politics since the beginning of Pakistan's history. The founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a barrister—he mounted a series of successful arguments for how the 1947 separation from India would take place; at heart, Partition was a legal arrangement. And throughout the decades of Pakistan's existence, lawyers have fought for the development of legislative and judicial institutions in opposition to military dictatorship and the existing bureaucratic rule. The idea of an independent rule of law became a rallying cry for the opposition during the early period of military rule, which lasted from the 1950s to about 1971. In 1968, lawyers demonstrated in defiance of the government's ban on public meetings. Since no more than six people could gather without a permit at the time, lawyers protested six at a time, standing outside the courts with signs in their hands. Their actions added momentum to the mass protests that took place a few months later and eventually led to the ousting of the nation's first military ruler, Ayub Khan.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Manan Ahmed of University of Chicago, Arnaud de Borchgrave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Husain Haqqani of Boston University, and Amit Pangya of the Henry L. Stimson Center.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 4:15 PM The Trials of White Boy Rick A Detroit crime legend, the FBI, and the ugliness of the war on drugs.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 4:46 PM Ebola Is No Measles. That’s a Good Thing. Comparing this virus to scourges of the past gives us hope that we can slow it down.
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?