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Pakistan's lawyers above law?

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Lahore

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Officer Fakir Muhammed is attacked by lawyers

These days, their footage is all over the Pakistani news channels. Lawyers, dressed in black suits and ties, on the attack.

Every few days seem to bring a new incident; the beating of a policeman; a scuffle with members of the press outside the high court in Lahore.

The newspapers scream that lawyers have become a public menace. The police are incensed.

"Lawyers used to be a very gentle people," says superintendent Sohail Sukhera of Lahore police force. "They were polite and educated. But the last couple of years have converted them into an absolutely different commodity."

He says that, in the last month, there have been 18 cases of assaults carried out by lawyers in Lahore alone.

"In one case, lawyers broke the leg of a police inspector. Others have had their skulls exposed when lawyers have hit them on the head with stones or chair legs. It's really uncalled for."

Visibly upset

Too embarrassed to talk to us at the police station at which he works, we go to meet one of the victims elsewhere.

A Pakistani lawyer throws a rock at police on 5 November 2007
Protests by lawyers were the catalyst for Mr Musharraf's downfall

He is a 52-year-old officer, Fakir Muhammed.

A cameraman filmed the moment he was punched and slapped and harassed by lawyers at the high court.

"I had just testified against a man accused of kidnapping a woman," he says. "As I was leaving the court, I was surrounded by 10 or 11 lawyers."

Mr Muhammed is visibly upset as he recounts how one snatched and broke his glasses before a few of the others tore his uniform and beat him.

"They really hurt me and it was so sudden," he says.

"I tried to reason with them but they didn't listen and I still have no idea what it was about. I feel so insulted. My whole department looks at me as the guy that got beaten up. It's humiliating."

So what is going on? Many look to Pakistan's recent history for answers.

When Pervez Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan one year ago, the country's lawyers were among those who danced in the streets in celebration.

It was the huge protests and collective civil disobedience they had organised that had been the catalyst for Mr Musharraf's political demise.

The lawyers' demonstrations continued until March this year when the chief justice who had sacked by Mr Musharraf was restored to his post.

'Above law'

"Since then, a small group of lawyers is exploiting the mob mentality they developed during their protests," hypothesises Mr Sukhera.

"They now feel they are above the law, and can do what they want."

Mr Sukhera acknowledges that it is a slim percentage of the legal community that is involved, but he says it is having serious implications on policing capacity all the same.

"The resources that we should be using towards fighting terrorism and for other challenges unfortunately have to be used to deal with this problem," he says.

Pakistani lawyer celebrating (File photo)
Some lawyers feel their achievements have not been recognised by the public

The lawyers that have the fingers pointed at them are furious. They feel it is the media that is at fault.

"Perhaps there were some cases when police were hit," says Raja Hanif, 33, a member of Lahore High Court Bar.

"But these should be treated on an individual basis. The media is trying to show all lawyers in a bad light," he says. "And there are others who benefit through making us look bad."

He refers to Musharraf supporters within and outside the legal profession.

"But I believe the people of Pakistan understand we fought for truth," Mr Hanif says.

"We fought for the rule of law over two years, and we achieved something great.

"What we did was historic and a turning point for Pakistan, and helped the whole world. People should respect that."

But one of the main leaders of the lawyers' movement in their confrontation with Pervez Musharraf, Justice Tariq Mahmood says only the lawyers who have carried out the assaults can be blamed for the current cloud hanging over their profession.

"I don't believe in these conspiracy theories," he says, "ultimately, lawyers are involving themselves in these incidents.

"Yes, we did fight for the rule of law, but if you have earned so much respect, and then instead of being a role model, you involve yourself in these incidents of violence, then what message is being passed to the general public?"

He says "the only solution is to deal harshly with the lawyers involved".

"A message should be given so lawyers won't think they can commit an offence and then be protected by the whole lawyers' community behind them.

"What is happening now is not what we fought so hard for and not what we made such sacrifices for."



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