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Pakistan: Men in Black

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Length: 5:02

Aitzaz Ahsan

Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the lawyer's movement in Pakistan and an outspoken critic of President Musharraf, was released from house arrest March 2.

Watch a video clip of the lawyer protests and excerpts from an interview with Aitzaz Ahsan.

The political landscape is shifting in Pakistan. After suffering a major election defeat last month, the government of President Pervez Musharraf has released from house arrest one of its most prominent critics. Aitzaz Ahsan, the country's most famous lawyer, was freed on March 2 after four months of detention. He had been arrested last November when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, dismissed his Supreme Court and rounded up thousands of lawyers.

At a press conference following his release, Ahsan called for the immediate restoration of the country's independent judiciary.

Musharraf had previously resisted calls to free Ahsan. But just hours after the election results came in, a curious thing happened at Ahsan's house in Lahore. For the first time in months, his telephone lines suddenly and mysteriously came back on. Days after that, his colleagues burst into his house, defying government orders, and carried Ahsan out to the street on their shoulders for a brief taste of freedom.

Now that Ahsan is officially free, and Pakistan's parliament is forming a new government, there is even talk that Ahsan could be elected Prime Minister.

Now that Ahsan is officially free, and Pakistan's parliament is forming a new government, there is even talk that Ahsan could be elected Prime Minister.

I had tried to meet with the lawyer at his home last December. It's an elegant brick structure, one of many in an upscale neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. But Ahsan's house stood out: it was surrounded by a dozen policemen in riot gear. Ahsan had been arrested in a nationwide crackdown during a time of increasing Islamic insurgency and terrorism.

He is, however, an unlikely target: he's never carried a gun and has no Taliban connections; he stands for the rule of secular law, not the creation of an Islamic state; he was trained at Cambridge, not a terrorist camp.

And yet, Ahsan was arrested at gunpoint and placed under house arrest, charged with terrorism and threatening law and order.

That's because, as Musharraf battles against the greatest militant threat in Pakistan's history, he is also at war on another front: against the secular, moderate opposition that wants his dictatorship to end -- the very allies he most needs to stem the rise of extremism.

Ahsan's unofficial crime is that he wears a black suit -- the standard attire of Pakistan's lawyer community. Tens of thousands of lawyers have been protesting against Musharraf for months, at times bringing entire cities to a standstill. They're outraged that Musharraf, who took power in 1999 in a military coup, resorted to strong-arm tactics last November to ensure his re-election at a time when the Supreme Court looked as if it might challenge his re-election bid. Musharraf sacked the court, suspended the country's constitution, and installed new judges loyal to him. They, in turn, quickly rubber stamped his re-election.

Aitzaz Ahsan.

Aitzaz Ahsan (center) is ushered away by fellow lawyers after police beat him at a protest march in the capital Islamabad last September.

Musharraf now has another five years in office. But Pakistan's lawyers, a well-organized community numbering in the thousands, see themselves as a thin black line protecting Pakistan's rule of law. The showdown will continue -- particularly with Ahsan as their feisty, eloquent leader.

I first met him last June, at his office in Islamabad, the capital. "The army has become very unpopular in Pakistan. It has ruled in Pakistan for a good 36 out of Pakistan's 60 years," he told me. "This is not a time for armies to rule. This is not a time for army chiefs to be president."

At the time we met, Ahsan was in the midst of a political storm. President Musharraf had just sacked the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, sparking the civil unrest that has continued until today. Ahsan became Mr. Chaudhry's outspoken lawyer, and argued that the president's move was illegal and unconstitutional. Together, Chaudry and Ahsan inspired an opposition movement rarely, if ever seen in Pakistan's history, let alone one led by lawyers, who've historically been apolitical in Pakistan.

When Chaudry was placed under house arrest immediately following his ouster, Ahsan was thrust further into the public arena. Chaudhry was notoriously taciturn, rarely speaking to the press, but Ahsan skillfully courted media attention.

Ahsan was arrested in November, one of 3,500 lawyers rounded up throughout the country. Then came solitary confinement followed by house arrest, where he was cut off from the outside world.

But it came at price. With Chaudhry out of the way, Ahsan was next in line as a central target for Musharraf's regime. In September, as thousands of lawyers protested in the nation's capital against Musharraf, many lawyers were badly beaten. But Ahsan seemed to be singled out for harsh treatment: a policeman smashed him in the stomach with a brick. News coverage shot that day shows Ahsan about to collapse, whisked away by his colleagues.

He was arrested in November, one of 3,500 lawyers rounded up throughout the country. Then came solitary confinement. Even after he was released from his tiny cell, Ahsan was placed under house arrest and cut off from the outside world. Not even his own family was allowed to visit him, and he was not permitted to make phone calls.

That's when we arrived at his house. Although it seemed that we might be able to meet him -- he'd been released for three days to observe Eid, a religious holiday -- he was detained again and shut away from the public. His son Ali, a Harvard educated lawyer, told us Musharraf's regime was simply too scared to let Ahsan back out on the street during the run up to the February 18 elections, when Ahsan might have rallied large crowds against Musharraf's political allies.

Ahsan was not taking any of this lying down. Days after our visit, he managed to sneak out and publish a scathing opinion piece in The New York Times:

"People in the United States wonder why extremist militants in Pakistan are winning. What they should ask is why does President Musharraf have so little respect for civil society -- and why does he essentially have the backing of American officials?" Ahsan wrote.

That's a pertinent question in light of Pakistan's recent parliamentary elections. At the polls, Pakistanis sent an overwhelmingly clear message: they want Musharraf and his allies out, and they want an end to the power of the Islamist parties. They want to tackle extremism, but they also want to promote democracy and the rule of law. Musharraf has failed to do either, their votes say.

The elections left Musharraf weakened, and his party battered. He may finally be getting the message that things have to change.

If Ahsan and his men in black have their way, Pakistan is about to enter a new era in which civil society will refuse to buckle to the military or to the Taliban.

David Montero

Reporter David Montero reporting for FRONTLINE/World in Swat Valley.

David Montero has reported on South Asia for The New York Times and FRONTLINE/World and was the Pakistan correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor between 2005 and 2007. He now lives in Cambodia.

More Coverage from Pakistan

Pakistan: State of Emergency
These dispatches are part of the coverage for our recent broadcast, "Pakistan: State of Emergency," which aired on PBS February 26. Watch the full show video online.

Read the interview between David Montero and Aitzaz Ahsan about the sacking of the Supreme Court and conducted before his house arrest last November.

Pakistan: "We Routed the Men With Beards"
Reporting after elections in Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy finds many voters are still ecstatic. "We have told the world that we are not extremists and we don't want Islamic fundamentalists in power," one young voter told her. But what comes next?

"Welcome to Democracy, Pakistan-Style"
On the eve of presidential elections in Pakistan, FRONTLINE/World's Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy visits the neighborhoods around her home city of Karachi where she reports that ballot-rigging, coercion and intimidation are taking place.

Pakistan: Blackout
In this video dispatch, David Montero reports on the crackdown on Pakistan's independent media since the state of emergency was declared last year and talks with an outspoken news editor and critic of Musharraf whose popular current affairs program was pulled off the air.

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
I completely agree. Montero is very very good at summarzing the big picture and including all the relevant aspects of the story.

(anonymous)
Frontline World has really been on the case in covering Pakistan, and you were way ahead of most of the media on this lawyer's story. I appreciate that. This guy you have, David Montero, is good. And so is your reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.