Monday, May 12, 2008

Helplessness of judges and the masses

By Imran Ayub

KARACHI, May 11: For Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali in Clifton and Asghar Khan in Landhi, the morning of May 12, 2007, held no hint of what was to come. There was no similarity between the ordinary routines of the deposed judge of the Sindh High Court on the one hand, and that of the home appliances trader on the other. Yet that grim Saturday brought to both the realisation that their city was under siege and held hostage by lawless elements, in the face of which they were entirely helpless.

Two rival rallies had been planned in the city that day, one to welcome the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, to Karachi and the other organised by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in protest against what the party termed “the politicisation” of the issue of the presidential reference against Mr Chaudhry. Though a certain amount of fear and uncertainty had prevailed in the city, neither man had any notion of the deeply disturbing events that were to follow.

Justice Jamali intended to go to the Sindh High Court to listen to the deposed chief justice address a ceremony being held by the Sindh High Court Bar Association. Mr Khan, meanwhile, was headed towards Quaid-i-Azam International Airport to welcome the deposed chief justice when he landed.

Travelling with the then Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court Sabihuddin Ahmed and escorted by a police mobile, Justice Jamali’s car was forced to stop before it could cross Clifton Bridge, its way blocked by parked vehicles. On Sharea Faisal, meanwhile, Mr Khan’s car came under fire near Malir Halt. As Justice Jamali contemplated his helplessness in the face of the turn of events, Mr Khan watched two of his friends die from bullet wounds before he too lost consciousness.

Travelling in two different districts of the city, Justice Jamali and Mr Khan became aware that Karachi had been under siege since midnight – main roads, highways, connecting arteries and access roads to the airport had been blocked with containers.

“The police and Rangers watched silently as we were intercepted by armed youths just yards from the high court,” recalls Justice Jamali. “We were deeply disturbed and embarrassed since despite being judges of the high court, we were entirely helpless before the lawlessness of that day.”

Rampant lawlessness

In anticipation of the two rallies, law enforcers had been put on high alert a day before, on May 11 last year. The fire brigade was directed to remain on standby and hospitals were asked to ready themselves for any emergency. But the next day, hapless citizens found that the city had been abandoned by the law-enforcement agencies and armed youths were wandering at will. Asghar Khan met a few of them at Malir Halt.

“With my ANP [Awami National Party] friends, I managed to cross the blockades near Quaidabad to reach the airport,” he remembers. “But when we reached the railway crossing near Malir Halt, we were attacked. I was too fearful and confused to identify the people who were shooting at us. But before I lost consciousness, I watched two of my friends die of bullet wounds and my left shoulder was grazed by a bullet.”

Mr Khan escaped with his life and was able to reach a nearby private hospital for first aid. But fear and terror stalked the city the entire day and by the time dusk fell, 50 people had died – most of them workers of opposition parties.

During the course of the evening a private television channel’s offices, located on Business Recorder Road near Guru Mandir, also came under attack during crossfire between two rival groups.

“I had to report on what was happening, hosting the live transmission while my colleagues lay on the floor to save themselves from the bullets that were being shot at our offices,” recalls Nadia Mirza, a news anchor at Aaj TV. “We were hostages … it was the most terrible experience of my life.”

The channel was attacked apparently for broadcasting live footage of armed youths engaging in a shootout with their rivals. The guns fell silent after about two hours but the channel’s parking area then became a fresh target for the gunmen. Ms Mirza was unfortunate enough to have to report live on television as she watched her own car being attacked, and her colleague’s vehicle being set on fire.

Investigation pledged

The violence triggered deep criticism of President Pervez Musharraf, who was at that time a serving member of the armed forces. Opposition parties blamed the ruling coalition for the blood shed on May 12.

Yet the judges’ concern, as expressed by Justice Jamali, failed to inspire the then authorities to hold an independent inquiry, which has now been pledged by the new provincial government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

“May 12 was a day of grave injustice and no one can deny this,” says Shazia Marri, the Sindh Information Minister under the new set-up. “We are confident about investigating the issue since we hope for a final report that would satisfy all true political forces, rather than threaten their credibility.”

The minister sounds keen to discover the “reason and the hands” behind the planned episodes that took place on that day, when the deposed chief justice was confined to the airport and city life was brought to a halt by gunfire and blocked roads. The events of that day also raised questions over the Sindh government’s role in controlling the violence, since the measures taken by the authorities came as a shock.

On the first anniversary of that bloody Saturday, however, the MQM leadership argues that the “overwhelming majority won by it in the Feb 18 polls negated the opposition propaganda” and says that the party is willing to see an independent inquiry into the incidents.

“May 12 was a sad day for the MQM since the party lost 14 workers,” says Faisal Sabzwari, an MQM MPA and the party’s deputy parliamentary leader in the Sindh Assembly. “Unfortunately, some parties tried to capitalise on the incident for their own political gains. We have never been against the investigations, since we believe that an independent inquiry would identify the people actually responsible for the violence and bring them before a court of law.”

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