The top judge is again on a collision course with the country's political leaders, this time over corruption. Robert Fisk reports from Islamabad on the judiciary's battle to uphold due process and the rule of law
Three years ago, Pakistan's dethroned chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was portrayed in the American press as a nationalist firebrand, intent on destroying the Washington-friendly Dictator-General-President Pervez Musharraf.
And today – a year after he was restored to his Supreme Court post – Mr Chaudhry is being condemned by some as a closet fundamentalist, a pseudo-Taliban anxious to overthrow his country's dodgy democracy.
Mr Chaudhry once again became the most prominent man in Pakistan this week when he pursued the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari over allegations of corruption. As a result of his threats, officials in Islamabad took the surprising step yesterday of asking the Swiss authorities to reopen a series of old money-laundering allegations against Mr Zardari, a move which opens the prospect of the sitting President facing a criminal investigation.
But you only have to sit in the book-lined office of Aitzaz Ahsan to realise that the West got it wrong about Pakistan's judiciary. The senior advocate at Pakistan's Supreme Court, honorary fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, Benazir Bhutto's former lawyer and leader of Mr Chaudhry's "long march" – a 2007 epic in which the marchers all travelled comfortably by bus, truck and limousine – speaks softly, like a cat controlling its anger. And he flourishes a legal folio which explains why the Chief Justice's recent decision to overturn Pakistan's dubious amnesty law – the National Reconciliation Ordinance – which pardons corrupt politicians, including President Zardari, has nothing to do with Islam.
"What we have now is a set of judges who are independent by conviction," Mr Ahsan says. "They resisted the military regime. They suffered detention and made sacrifices. They were reinstated by an energetic and frenzied mass movement. But they are now being maligned on two counts: that the chief justice is an Islamist and that he is trying to destabilise the democratic system ... The purpose? To contain Chaudhry, to put him on the defensive, the back foot. But the assumptions behind the attacks on Chaudhry are false."
Mr Chaudhry's dismissal followed his opposition to the privatisation of Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi, bought by three companies, one of which was rumoured to be a front for the then prime minister, and another on close terms with Mr Musharraf himself. Mr Chaudhry's three targets are the same now as they were in 2007: corruption, corruption and corruption. But Mr Ahsan himself likes telling the story of his finest hour. He tells it well.
"Musharraf, fearing that the judges would rule against him continuing to wear his uniform as chief of staff through an election for a second term, arrested the Chief Justice on November 3rd. I was myself arrested from this very room in my home. I was holding a press conference, condemning the imposition of the emergency and the suspension of the constitution, when the guy from downstairs called me, and said: 'The police have surrounded the house – they are going to come and get you.' I asked: 'Is there an escape route?' There was a road behind the house. He said, 'It's surrounded on every side.' I said: 'Be calm and let them come up.' I continued with the press conference. Then the police barged in."
"This was an electrifying event for the people, particularly because the chief justice had resisted the general's demand for his own resignation and had contested his dismissal before his own supreme court, where I represented him. And he had also energised the entire public by his travels in Pakistan earlier in the year. Chaudhry drove from here to Lahore – I drove him – and he stopped at every village. It should have taken four hours and it took 26 hours. There were millions of people, tens of thousands every couple of miles. Because of this, the 13 judges reinstated the chief justice on 20 July 2007 ..."
Much good did it do him. Mr Chaudhry was detained at his official residence, along with his children. "They were padlocked in," Ahsan says, still with a sense of shock. "They couldn't even go out to the back yard or the front garden for five months. He was forbidden cell-phones and television. I was myself detained all that time. We used servants with grocery baskets to pass messages. We put cellphone chips in the baskets. A one-minute call was all we could get from them before the police jammed the line."
And at this point, a palpable sense of rage almost overwhelms the bespectacled and slightly long-haired Mr Ahsan and he raises his finger in front of his face. "And during all this time, not a syllable or decibel was heard from either London or Washington or their representatives in Pakistan. There was not even a statement of concern about the children. The British and the Americans wouldn't touch us with a barge pole. All the time, they were negotiating between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf."
Mr Ahsan shakes his head. The lawyers' movement was, he explains, non-violent, pluralistic and in favour of "moderate" values. "It was the only one of its kind in the history of the Islamic world. And the West treated us like pariahs. They embraced Musharraf, they were angry at us."
In a sense, the Pakistani judiciary had become an equivalent to the press in Britain after Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq: they were the real opposition party; they – and not the politicians – represented the people.
"The fact is that until the chief justice refused to resign, there was no challenge to Pervez Musharraf," Mr Ahsan goes on. "He had had a tame judiciary – which included Chaudhry at that time – which was totally subservient. He [Musharraf] was the army chief and the military did his bidding entirely; and the popular opposition leaders – Benazir and Nawaz Sharif – were both in self-exile. It was at this point that the lawyers picked up the standard of revolt and challenged the authority of Musharraf in the face of brutal repression. The people responded and the rallies got bigger and bigger by the day."
Mr Ahsan has no doubt that America and Britain came to be regarded as adversaries rather than friends. "I kept telling them: 'Look, there's no likelihood of a suicide bomber starting his trek from Tora Bora and blowing himself up in Chicago or Manchester – it's your own citizens from Manchester of Pakistani origin who may do you damage. All they want is that you are friendly to their home country – you should espouse the rule-of-law movement.
"It was a historical opportunity missed – to embrace the people of Pakistan. For two years this opportunity was available to the West, particularly to Britain and the US. And for two years, they kicked it away."