Nirupama Subramanian

Families of Pakistan’s missing want return of judge who gave them hope.

Two days before President Pervez Musharraf imposed Emergency rule in Pakistan, Amina Masood was the happiest person on earth. That day, at a hearing in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry had set November 13 as the last deadline for the government to produce her businessman husband Masood Ahmed Janjua, missing since July 2005.

“I went home, I told my children, ‘get ready, your abbu is coming back soon.’ My sons and daughter fought over how they would complain to him about each other. Our spirits were really high,” said the 43-year-old mother of three.

For nearly a year, she had been stocking her husband’s wardrobe with new jackets, shirts, shoes, sweaters. “As if he would be back any day,” she said. That was the confidence she had in Mr. Chaudhry, who was heading the four-judge bench hearing the missing persons case.

Mr. Chaudhry had taken up the missing persons’ case suo motu in 2006 after a newspaper highlighted Ms Masood’s futile search for her husband. Human rights organisations say over 400 people went “missing” in Pakistan after 9/11; they are thought to have been picked up and detained secretly in the “war on terror.”

By October 2007, Mr. Chaudhry had managed to reunite 105 missing people with their families. As feared, most of them had been held at secret locations by one or the other of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. On November 1, observing that the Court had given a lot of “latitude” to the government already, Mr. Chaudhry told Interior Secretary Kamal Shah that the remaining missing persons must be produced by November 13. Ms Masood thought the intelligence agencies had no choice but to produce her husband.

Slightly over 48 hours later, on the evening of November 3, the world came crashing down around her. President Pervez Musharraf imposed Emergency rule, placed Mr. Chaudhry and several judges of the Supreme Court under house arrest, and enforced a provisional constitutional order. For Ms Masood, it was a huge personal blow.

“Suddenly there was no constitution, no Supreme Court, no judges, no Iftikhar Chaudhry. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I fell sick,” said Ms Masood.

She had felt the same way on March 9, when President Musharraf suspended Mr. Chaudhry. “On March 8, we had a hearing, and the Chief Justice saw me crying in the court. By my name he called me, and said ‘No Amina, don’t cry. We are going to have the hearings till the last person is released.’ The next day he was not in his chair,” she said.

A strong lawyers’ agitation and a legal fightback by Mr. Chaudhry saw him reinstated in July. He took charge of the missing persons’ case once again. At a hearing in August, he ordered the head of the Federal Investigating Agency, who he had summoned to the court, to produce a missing person who he had handed over to Military Intelligence, or else, he warned, “get ready to go to the dungeon.”

Music to their ears

The court had enough evidence, he said, that all the missing were in the custody of the intelligence agencies. He ordered the Interior Ministry to produce them, setting them deadlines and at one stage, even threatening to summon the head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence to court. For the families of the missing people, who had knocked at various doors looking for their loved ones in vain, this was sweet music.

But for the government, it was a growing embarrassment. General Musharraf indirectly pointed to the missing persons’ case as one of the reasons for imposing the Emergency, accusing Mr. Chaudhry of thwarting and “paralysing” the work of intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism.

Ms Masood rules out the possibility that her husband was a terrorist, or that he could have left her and their children and joined Islamist militants to fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, as an Interior Ministry official once said in court. “But if has done anything wrong, please bring him before a court of law. Why do they do detain people illegally?” she asked.

The missing persons’ case is unlikely to be resurrected in the reconstituted Supreme Court. Confident “100 per cent” that Mr. Chaudhry would have traced her husband, Ms Masood is now among those agitating for the reinstatement of the judiciary as it was before November 3.

Just as she was a constant presence outside the Supreme Court during rallies by lawyers demanding Mr. Chaudhry’s reinstatement in the turbulent months after March 9, Ms Masood has thrown herself into the post-Emergency agitation demanding that he be given his job back. As she knows only too well, the deposed Chief Justice made it possible for many in Pakistan to think for the first time that justice was within their grasp and that all, including the most powerful, were equal before the law. Much to General Musharraf’s discomfiture, Mr. Chaudhry has emerged a hero, and the agitation for his reinstatement refuses to die down.

Continuing agitation

Since the Emergency, lawyers country-wide have continued to boycott the courts under judges who have taken oath under the provisional constitutional order.

Despite the arrests of their own leaders, and backed by the country’s intelligentsia, including civil society and journalists, they are leading a spirited agitation for the restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary. In Islamabad, there is a rally a day in solidarity with the deposed judiciary and against the restrictions on the media.

Even opposition political parties are feeling pressured enough to take a line on the issue.

Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif has made the restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary a pre-condition for his participation in the January 8 polls. Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto is getting flak for her reported statement that while she supported an independent judiciary, “personalities do not matter.”

Ms Masood would be the first to disagree with her. “Iftikhar Chaudhry was the only one giving relief to poor people who did not have anywhere else to go. [Those in power] did not like that,” she said, as she participated in a journalists’ rally against the Emergency.

Dressed in her usual hijab and burqa, she held a picture of her smiling husband in one hand and in the other a placard that said “We want back both OLD and NEW missing persons” — a reference to the “missing” judges.

With her stood a small group of mothers and fathers, all holding pictures of their missing sons, who believe that the fate of their loved ones is linked to Mr. Chaudhry’s.

Said Ms Masood: “They took away our main source of support and backing on November 3. After that day, I pulled myself up and said to myself, the struggle has to continue. We are determined. I want my husband back. I want the CJ [chief justice] back.”