Men in Black

Turban-topped, gun-totting mountain men, stern military dictators and corrupt civilian politicians dominate the global media’s representations of Pakistan, from Washington to New Delhi best fitting the preferred image of the ‘most dangerous place on earth.’ The Pakistani press, however, provides equal coverage to a movement born in the populous, lowland cities, one that showcases this country of 160 million’s more representative, non-violent face. For the past two years, national commentators have been following ‘Men in Black’ – a reference to their black suits and ties – around the streets of Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and every other major population centre. In contrast to Hollywood’s clandestine anti-alien squad, Pakistan’s Men (and women) in Black have openly pursued their enemies with rallies, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts of government institutions and sit-ins in public buildings and spaces. The hapless Pakistani state’s attempts to quell this ‘sedition’ with tear-gas, baton-charges, mass-arrests, torture and killings, has been met and matched with only one weapon from these black-clad activists: knowledge of the law.

The ‘Men in Black’ are activists of the Lawyers’ Movement, begun when former President (General) Musharraf dismissed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (along with 50 other judges) on March 9, 2007. One of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s transgressions was daring to require the government to produce before the courts those Pakistanis ‘disappeared’ in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’ Bar associations across Pakistan were incensed at the dismissal. As one of the movement’s leaders put it, ‘How do you function as a lawyer when the law is what the general says it is?’ Driven by such questions, lawyers began plotting a strategy of their own below the government’s radar. The deposed Chief Justice was invited to speak at bar associations wherever they could be found, but asked not to address the media. Political parties were, at first, excluded from adding their resources to future actions, largely to avoid drawing the state’s attention. These provisions changed after broad-based debate throughout the legal community concluded that civil society will have to lend its support if the goals of the Chief Justice’s reinstatement and the establishment of an independent judiciary were to be effectively met. The first major public event the movement organized – one widely covered by the Pakistani media – was the formation of a picket line at the Supreme Court in Islamabad on the day that the deposed Chief Justice’s case was to be heard. This was accompanied by rallies and demonstrations in other urban centers; activities that continued once a week, involved all segments of civil society and served to popularize the black suit and tie as a symbol of resistance to government repression. The result, following the failure of harsh government crackdowns to break the movement, was the reinstatement of the deposed Chief Justice on July 20, 2007.

Once reinstated, Iftikhar Chaudhry did not disappoint those who had rallied in his name. He and his court began releasing political prisoners and ordering the appearance of the ‘disappeared.’ Meanwhile, debate ensued about the constitutionality of Musharraf’s presidency, given that he was also Chief of Army Staff. The Musharraf regime, on the other hand, acting with the Bush administration as mediator, began negotiating terms for admitting the unhampered return of former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from self-imposed exile; ‘terms’ such as the burial of corruption and other pending charges. This led Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) to allow Musharraf’s re-election by a ‘king’s parliament,’ before fresh elections involving the PPP could be held. To insure that the Supreme Court did not throw a spanner in the works, however, soon after ‘re-election,’ Musharraf declared a state of emergency (November 3, 2007), suspended the constitution and re-arrested all the judges. 25,000 lawyers and political activists were also arrested and the media severely muzzled. In this repressive environment, Musharraf then ordered general elections, which eventually took place in February 2008. Given the atmosphere of repressions and backdoor deals, the Men in Black immediately began rallying support for a boycott of the elections. Having negotiated the return of Bhutto, however, Musharraf did not fear the route of his king’s party, and Bhutto’s PPP did not fear running without the support of the Men in Black. Neither side appears to have anticipated the fallout of Bhutto’s assassination soon after. This greatly weakened Musharraf’s public standing, while strengthening that of the PPP, encouraging those eventually elected to stab ‘Caesar’ in the back by calling for his impeachment – leading to his resignation in August 2008, with promises of immunity from prosecution for corruption, murder and a list of related charges, for himself and his regime.

Despite calls for the boycott of the elections, the rise of the PPP and the fall of Musharraf and his king-makers, had a great deal to do with the activities of the Men in Black. A few lines from a statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) should make matters plainly:

Throughout Asia there has been no parallel to this movement. It was largely because of the movement that the elections of February 18 [2008] were possible and in turn the people gave their mandate to the parties that stood up against the tyranny of the army rulers, the illegal unconstitutional way of governance, even against international forces who openly and vehemently supported the army general in uniform as the president of the country and who declared him to be the ‘best leader’ in Pakistan. The lawyer’s movement exposed the so-called super powers for not supporting the movement of the judiciary on the lame excuse of ‘the war on terror’.

Since this statement was issued to mark the first anniversary of the movement on March 9, 2008, Musharraf’s regime has not been the only party to find a knife in its back. The ‘best leader’ may have been forced to resign by late summer 2008, but his erstwhile defenders in the international community have countered with the ‘second best leader.’ President Asif Ali Zardari, best known as Bhutto’s widower, has proved to be as committed to undermining the Men in Black’s movement for judicial autonomy. Never mind that his lesser known credentials include an array of outstanding charges ranging from corruption to murder, which Musharraf magnanimously set aside with the international community’s blessings. Forget that he has retained the draconian powers Musharraf assumed as President, also with the international community’s silent approval. Do not even spare a thought for the fact that the constitution requires the head of state to have a university degree, which Zardari claimed to have earned at a British institution that does not exist. These are mere trifles, considering that Zardari has actively employed his newfound powers and international support to stifle the issues raised by these shady men and women cloaked in black garb. Why would he do otherwise? This is the very judiciary that would hear the cases registered against him (including his ineligibility to be President under the current constitution); the very judiciary that would challenge Musharraf’s immunity from prosecution; the very judiciary seeking to conjure up the ‘disappeared’ his allies abroad have transported to ‘Gitmo’ and other points less known.

As the actions of Zardari and his government prove, goods guys and bad guys are not as easily identified as the AHRC’s statement suggests. It can also not be forgotten that the Chief Justice whose removal sparked the lawyers’ organized activism, was himself once a key component in the ‘legalization’ of the coup that brought Musharraf to power, even if he has since opposed aspects of Musharraf’s and Zardari’s policies. The deposed Chief Justice’s checkered record, however, should not be read to imply that the Men in Black would flip-flop as brazenly. Nor should the lip-service to the movement extended by such convicts and former Prime Ministers as Nawaz Sharif, whose two terms in office offer ample proof of pliability when ‘financial aid’ is on the line, be seen as a reason to colour the movement anew. One also need not pay much attention to the religio-political parties tagging along for the ride. Zardari has already silenced much of their support for the movement by appointing one of their ranks as the Federal Minister of Tourism, and talking of amending constitutional references to men and women as ‘equals.’ The true colours of the movement are best evinced by the first demonstration following Musharraf’s resignation – held in Karachi on August 28, 2008, to remind the newly elected government of its campaign promises. On that day, as at every rally since, judges and lawyers have been supported by journalists and joined by activists from the Labour Party of Pakistan, the Socialist International, the Peoples’ Resistance Group, various trade unions and growing numbers of independent citizens. In addition, the AHRC appears to have been quite correct to more specifically predict that:

1) The lawyers will not sit aloof in future political affairs and will continuously monitor the developments and pace of the rule of law.

2) Human rights issues will dominate politics and will not be so easy to dismiss as it was before March 9, 2007. The courts will be filled by public litigation cases and decisions of the judiciary will be discussed openly by the public including the media.

3) A strong civil society will emerge on common points, particularly for an independent judiciary without any political and official interference.

4) It was evident that the media and particularly the journalists have strongly supported the movement of the lawyers, without which it would have not been possible for the lawyers to keep the movement running. They have proved their independent position for the rule of law, supremacy of judiciary and freedom of expression. So for future governments it will be difficult to put this Djinn back in the bottle. The journalists will continue to monitor the issues of corruption, nepotism, violations of human rights and curbs against their professional duties.

As a ‘strong civil society’ has not yet emerged, the lawyers’ movement has clearly begun to grow beyond the 80,000-strong legal community to resemble a mass movement. Apart from the central issue of establishing judicial autonomy and extending the judiciary’s cover to the ‘disappeared,’ the movement has identified and spoken on reeling in the state’s powerful intelligence services, stifling unchecked neo-liberal economic policies, and addressing anti-woman legislation and social customs, so that a civil society can emerge – all issues which the Supreme Court began acting on before being sacked and arrested for the second time in 2007. To counter such challenges in the present, Zardari’s administration, with the aid of intelligence agencies and police forces, is working overtime to buy-off or beat-down key figures in the movement, with some effect. His efforts have even won recognition in post-Bush Washington. Echoing President Obama’s mantra of ‘stabilization,’ rather than the brazenly insincere chant of ‘democratization,’ Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institute has lauded Zardari’s formation of “a stable government at the center, and stable coalitions in most of the provinces. It is an amazing accomplishment given how far gone Pakistan was just a few months ago.” This is also an ‘amazing’ statement, considering a raging civil war against the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province, and ethnic separatists in Baluchistan, not to mention the rising tide of non-violent opposition to his government in every other province that is the subject of this essay.

On March 12, this year, to mark the second anniversary of the movement, the Men in Black are planning a mass march on Islamabad, culminating in a sit-in on Constitution Avenue. How many will participate and what mode of repression the government will unleash to deal with them is yet to be seen. A hint of the latter was whispered on March 10, leaders and activists of the movement were quietly arrested. Whatever the details, it is quite clear this movement will not be easily extinguished. Pakistani bloggers are furiously spreading the message and debating every aspect of its agenda. Pakistani students abroad have been rallying support among their fellows, while leaders of the movement from Pakistan have delivered their message to the American Bar Association and noteworthy US law schools, including that at Georgetown University. Such outreach has internationalized the movement’s base of support. In late November, 2008, in fact, former US Attorney General, William Ramsey Clark, announced that he will travel to Pakistan to join the lawyers’ struggle. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. All that is certain is that this face of Pakistan – rather than mountain men, military dictators and corrupt civilian authorities alone – should be equally highlighted in the global media and better supported by the international community, if fears of the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ are to be allayed.

M. REZA PIRBHAI is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at:

[Sources include: “Pakistan: Lawyers’ Movement is the Vanguard of Democracy,” Statement Issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission: AHRC-STM-053-2008 (March 3, 2008); Ali Khan, “The Lawyers’ Movement in Pakistan,” Jurist (May-December 2007); Amitabh Pal, “Pakistan Lawyers’ Movement Shows Global Reach of Non-Violence,” The Progressive (November 9, 2007); Nasir Mansoor, “Pakistan: Lawyers’ Movement Launches New Phase of Struggle,” New Left (September 5, 2008); Farooq Tariq, “Pakistan’s Struggle for Democracy: The Lawyers’ Movement One Year On,” Links International Journal for Socialist Renewal (March 7, 2008).]

M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).