Pakistan courts slow to a crawl under emergency rule

ISLAMABAD Wed Nov 7, 2007 8:10am EST

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's military president, Pervez Musharraf, has purged the country's superior courts of judges he sees as hostile to him but the move appears to have stymied the judiciary, analysts said.

General Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution on Saturday, accusing the judiciary of paralyzing government and hobbling counter-terrorism efforts in a country where al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are widely believed to be hiding.

He also issued a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), requiring judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts in the four provinces to swear allegiance to him or face dismissal.

Only four of the 17 Supreme Court justices took the oath, and a majority of high court judges refused.

"I have been approached by the government to take an oath under the PCO but I've refused," one deposed judge, Sardar Mohammad Raza, told Geo private television.

The judges' current defiance is in marked contrast to past practice in a country that has been ruled by generals for more than half the 60 years since its formation at the partition of India in 1947.

Pakistani courts have been regarded as compliant to the army since a ruling in the late 1950s which coined the phrase "doctrine of necessity" to justify the first military takeover.

Legal experts say the judges' current defiance is unprecedented.

"It has never happened in the history of Pakistan that such a large number of judges refused to take an oath under a PCO," former chief justice Nasir Aslam Zahid told Reuters.

Musharraf locked horns with the judiciary in March when he tried to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Chaudhry's refusal to quit triggered a countrywide campaign led by lawyers for his restoration.

BACKBONE

Zahid said the lawyers' movement gave the judges the backbone to stand up to Musharraf after he had invoked emergency rule.

Musharraf's authoritarian move, according to everyone from analysts to the man in the street, was mainly motivated by fears that the top court would nullify his October 6 re-election by the parliament because he contested it while still army chief.

Lawyers have led protests this week and hundreds have been detained during clashes with police, while opposition parties have yet to mobilize their own street demonstrations.

"KANGAROO COURTS"

The lawyers' protests had subsided by mid-week, but courts remained virtually deserted across the nation.

"We have decided not to appear before judges who took the oath under the PCO," said Gulab Shah, an official of the Lawyers Action Committee in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

"These are kangaroo courts."

Few cases are being heard.

In the capital, Islamabad, the authorities placed prominent advertisements in newspapers declaring main roads leading to the Supreme Court building out of bounds.

The government is trying to fill vacancies in the superior courts, but legal experts said compliant judges would not win the respect of lawyers or a public eager for judicial independence.

"It will be a pliant judiciary and it will be a major crisis for the country," a former judge said on condition of anonymity.

Musharraf has yet to announce how long the emergency will last but has vowed to stand down as army chief after forging harmony between government, parliament and judiciary.

"The emergency will continue until things in the judiciary are sorted out," a senior government official said.

(Editing by Roger Crabb)

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