ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - It was one of the strangest demonstrations I had ever witnessed. On a recent chilly morning, about 60 lawyers, many of them dignified middle-aged gentlemen, were gathered near the home of Pakistan's former chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. He was under house arrest, but the government had promised he would be let out for mosque prayers on the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.

But the road to his house was blocked by rolls of concertina wire and more than 100 police with batons and shields. As the lawyers knelt to pray on the road, an armored van with tear-gas dispensers pulled up behind them. "God, please give us rights," called out a former member of parliament, Mian Aslam, who led the prayers. "Even the chief justice cannot get justice in his own country."

This is the bizarre situation in Pakistan, where dozens of judges and thousands of lawyers and supporters, including many journalists, were jailed in November for protesting the suspension of the constitution by President Pervez Musharraf, who said he was acting to combat terrorism and Islamist extremism.

Not so.

The sacking and packing of Pakistan's supreme court, and the jailing of the cream of the legal profession, were spurred not by terrorism but by Musharraf's desire to remain in office. The supreme court was hearing a challenge to the constitutionality of his right to be elected this fall to a second term while wearing a general's uniform. Two days before the decision, he imposed emergency rule.

The state of emergency has been lifted, most of the jailed released, and Musharraf has taken off his uniform under international pressure. But prominent judges and lawyers have been dismissed or remain under house arrest. I was supposed to meet one of Pakistan's leading lawyers, Aitzaz Ahsan, at the demonstration, but he was seized, roughed up, and put back under house arrest before reaching Islamabad. A gun was put to his son's head.

Even as the war on lawyers continues, a suicide bomb killed scores last week in a mosque near Peshawar. And Rashid Rauf, a high-profile prisoner accused of a plot to bomb transatlantic airliners, recently escaped.

"Rauf can get away, but Chaudhry is under house arrest," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer before the high court of Peshawar, with whom I spoke at the demonstration. "Why are there more security forces guarding the chief justice than terrorists?"

This question underlies the tension in Pakistan today. Previous Pakistani leaders have challenged the courts. But legal experts can't recall a situation where top judges and lawyers have been jailed, threatened and beaten. The reason for such action, they say, is that the court was finally trying to act as an independent, institutional check on the Pakistani cycle of military leaders. It was trying to return the country to civilian rule according to constitutional law.

Civilian rule, however, does not mean an end to the war against Islamists. Ahmed Rashid, one of Pakistan's top experts on jihadis, argues to the contrary, that "you need a legitimate government to fight the fundamentalists."

Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections Jan. 8, but many question how elections can be free and fair when the legal structure has been subverted.

Even more disturbing, Musharraf's war on the courts and Chaudhry is more likely to undercut the struggle against jihadis than to help. "Musharraf has put the entire focus on the judiciary, the media and civil society instead of on terrorism," one diplomat told me. Another said, "This fixation [on Chaudhry] is hurting the fight on terror because it has been a distraction."

Western diplomats who met Musharraf after his imposition of martial law say he spent the meeting castigating Chaudhry. This misplaced anger won't help damp down the real threats to Pakistan.

In essence, Musharraf is making war on Pakistan's educated, secular elite who have the most to lose if religious extremists gain strength, and who should be strong backers of measures to undercut them. He is creating public hostility toward and skepticism about the whole antiterrorist campaign.

Lawyers like Minullah can't understand why the U.S. government doesn't grasp these things and hasn't protested more strongly against the subversion of Pakistan's legal structure. He says America is disillusioning the very people who share its liberal values and have the most to lose from a takeover by extremists.

"Why does the United States want to lose the goodwill of all the lawyers here," he asks, "who share the same goals as the United States?"

Worldview |

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Contact columnist Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5823 or trubin@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at