The Law Under Attack in Pakistan

By Rishabh Bhandari, Cody M. Poplin
Friday, August 12, 2016, 12:11 PM

Earlier this week, a suicide bomber outside a crowded hospital in Quetta, Pakistan killed at least 74 people, most of them judges or lawyers, and wounded dozens more. Yesterday, another blast in Quetta wounded an additional 13 people. The provincial interior minister told Reuters that the bombing targeted police escorting a judge, who was not killed in the attack. Local TV stations have warned citizens to avoid the areas for fear of yet another double-tap attack.

Monday’s victims were not a random assortment of civilians waiting for medical care, but instead represented Quetta’s liberal elite. More than 200 lawyers had congregated to mourn the murder of Bilal Anwar Kasi, the president of the Balochistan Bar Association, who had been fatally shot earlier that day. A number of journalists had also arrived to cover Kasi’s death when the bomb detonated.

One surviving lawyer Barkhurdar Khan lamented that an entire generation of lawyers in Balochistan—Pakistan’s poorest province and the home of a deep-seated insurgency—had been wiped out. “Everyone who has given me a lift home is dead except for one person,” Khan said. Lawyers throughout the country boycotted court proceedings on Tuesday.

Pakistan has seen dozens of headline terror events in recent years, and the latest bombings, while horrific, were not even the most fatal strikes to occur in the beleaguered nation this year. On Easter Sunday, seventy-five Pakistanis were killed and more than 340 were wounded when Jaamat-ul-Ahrar—the same group that first claimed responsibility for Monday’s tragedy—targeted Christians in a park in Lahore. Yet while Pakistan’s familiarity with terror attacks only seems to grow, the strike in Quetta was particularly bleak. It was designed to hit at the heart of Pakistan’s civil society—its legal community—and is likely to further undermine the tools necessary for governance in an increasingly chaotic country.

Lawyers and judges have become regular targets as part of a coordinated campaign by Pakistani insurgents to punish those who would challenge them while reducing the state’s own capacity to govern.

Just last Thursday, for example, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for assassinating Tahir Khan Niazi, a lower court judge in Rawalpindi. In October 2011, after a politician was murdered by his own bodyguard for speaking out against the country’s blasphemy laws, a Pakistani judge was forced to flee the country for sentencing the killer. Islamist lawyers ransacked his courtroom and made repeated death threats. Earlier this year, a suicide bomber extracted revenge for the bodyguard’s hanging outside a court in Peshawar, killing at least 10 people. Most famously, in March 2014, a Taliban splinter group orchestrated a suicide attack inside a courtroom in Islamabad, killing 11 people including a judge who had dismissed a lawsuit against former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that alleged that the military dictator killed religious students in a 2007 counterterrorism operation. A spokesman for the Taliban splinter group after the 2014 court bombing pledged that Pakistan’s legal system would face more attacks until sharia law was implemented across the nation.

One of the most effective prosecutors in Karachi, Abdul Maroof, successfully sought asylum in the United States midway through a career in which he had pursued cases against the Taliban and other radical groups. He had already survived several assassination attempts. His brother, though deaf and mute, was shot dead in his hometown. Elsewhere in Karachi in 2013, a Sindh High Court judge was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban for “anti-Taliban and anti-mujahideen decisions.” At least nine people were killed in the bombing and lawyers boycotted the court’s proceedings in the wake of the attack. Another prosecutor told the Wall Street Journal, “it’s normal for the [Taliban] militants to tell us that they know which schools our children go to.”

In all, more than 113 lawyers—not including judges or other officers of the court—have been killed in targeted attacks since 2004 in Pakistan, according to the South Asia Terrorism Panel. Pakistan’s lawyers, like those in Afghanistan, have been drafted to the frontlines of the battle against terrorism in that country, both by the civilians they aim to protect and the extremists who attempt to kill them in return. The Pakistani government introduced a controversial set of military courts last year in part because they deemed that civilian courts, judges, and lawyers have proven easy to intimidate.

But lawyers and judges are not targeted solely out of revenge for their role in prosecuting and sentencing terrorists. Instead, Pakistani society is witnessing a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of its judicial system, drive courts from restive areas, and implement the Taliban’s own form of rough but relatively efficient justice in areas it seeks to control. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman said following an attack three months ago, “Pakistani courts give decisions against the laws revealed by Allah” and suggested that undermining Pakistan’s court system is a central component of establishing a state under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law.

In tribal areas across Pakistan and Afghanistan, “shadow justice” systems are common. And as reported in 2014, these courts do not only handle local matters isolated in far removed lands—one mufti’s jurisdiction included business, property and family disputes in Karachi, located over 600 miles away. The fact that denizens of the country’s most populous city would make a two-day trek into the mountains to settle disputes reflects “a widespread belief that Taliban justice is superior to the slow and corrupt courts—something counter-insurgency theorists describe as the ‘out-governing’ of the state by illegal groups trying to usurp it.” Given events of the past week, it is perhaps no surprise that the Taliban’s “shadow chief justice” is reported to preside in Quetta.

In response, efforts to reform and extend the Pakistani justice system have so far been meek. The United Nations Development Program helped sponsor a new “mobile court system” — essentially a number of long green buses that served as roaming courts in poor and secluded areas of Pakistan. While these efforts are laudable, they have not made much of a difference, and at least 1.7 million cases remain pending before Pakistan’s court system, with over 20,000 cases pending before the Supreme Court alone. Cases drag on for years, while high legal fees and basic access to courts remain a challenge for the poorest in Pakistan.

Yet Pakistan’s future depends on the reliability of its court system and the strength of its civil society just as much as it does on the willingness of its military to fight extremism.

In a nation of fractured institutions and corrupt politicians, the military has traditionally served as the country’s political center of gravity. Pakistan’s judiciary stands as the army’s most formidable check. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s last strongman, learned the hard way when he suspended Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry, the country’s Chief Justice in 2007. Pakistan’s lawyers took to the streets and the public decidedly sided with Chaudry. One legal historian Hamid Khan said that the chief justice “became a symbol of the common man’s protest against the elites in this country.” The Lawyers’ Movement, as the protest campaign was quickly dubbed, frustrated Musharraf until he was forced to reinstate Chaudry two years later.

Lawyers also represent the secular elite that first forged Pakistan as a modern nation-state. As Michelle Tsai notes for Slate, “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 argument.” As Pakistan increasingly became Islamized and militarized, the country’s legal fraternity remained the foremost advocates for a democracy undergirded by liberal values. Though the judicial system has undoubtedly fallen short of its ideals and often deserves its concurrent reputation as inefficient and venal, it is noteworthy that Pakistani lawyers have played leading roles in every major democratic movement from 1968 to 2007. Through the essential role they played in daily life and the bar associations they had formed across the country, lawyers often proved far more resilient to government crackdowns than oppositional political parties.

Pakistan’s Islamic extremists see in Jinnah and his legal successors an antithetical vision of how society should be ordered, and the Taliban’s desire to systematically undermine the judicial system needs to be taken seriously. The judicial system is one of the country’s few functioning albeit imperfect democratic institutions. But rather than grapple with this uncomfortable threat, or properly bolster the institution itself, Islamabad continues to look east with paranoia at New Delhi.

Even before the final death count was tallied on Monday, Musharraf issued a statement strongly suggesting that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence service, may have engineered the attack. Balochistan’s Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri went a step further in proclaiming that “RAW is behind all terrorist activities in Balochistan.”

Pakistani officials have long suspected that India aims to destabilize Balochistan, the home of a low-intensity separatist insurgency. These fears have only heightened since Balochistan’s geopolitical importance has grown. China plans to invest up to $46 billion in the province as part of Beijing’s ambitious agenda of regional economic connectivity. Indian military strategists are unsurprisingly disturbed at the prospect of their two primary geopolitical rivals’ partnership deepening so close to home.

But to suggest that the Pakistani Taliban would pursue India’s bidding in Balochistan strains credibility. For starters, one of the Taliban’s most influential factions—Ahrar-uh-Hind—takes its name from an ambition to unify the entire subcontinent under Islamist rule. Furthermore, India, with its growing economy and ambitions of becoming a leading destination for foreign investment, has more to fear from a weak Pakistan that views foreign-sponsored acts of terrorism as a regional norm than a stable Pakistan.

Pakistan’s instinct to shift blame—and resources often paid for by U.S. taxpayers—against India isn’t just a rhetorical tool to galvanize support at home. It reinforces a strategic blunder whereby Pakistan’s military planners and policymakers continue to focus more on the specter of India rather than the present and growing threat of Islamic extremism. If Islamabad is in search of monsters to destroy, it need not look abroad.