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The weight of our crimes

Once you’ve attacked a hospital, you have to really try quite hard to disappoint. For the average Pakistani lawyer, it’s almost effortless.

Windows were broken, bricks and pots set in projectile motion. Judges were effectively taken hostage. But to say lawyers continued their descent into degeneracy isn’t to say that any of this was worse than starving patients of oxygen in an emergency ward. At the very least, no one was murdered this time.

What I mean to say is that, usually, when lawyers pull something like this, they hide behind their tight mesh of kinship, professing loyalty to the profession and fealty to the ‘fraternity’. They stand for the tribe, they say. But in attacking their own, they demonstrate that really, they stand for nothing.

For all the talk of the Bar and the Bench being one, this is now the second high court that lawyers have attacked in the past five years (like most things that set your heart racing, Lahore got to experience it first). And as to the lower courts, they don’t stand a chance. Only months prior, in an open letter to the chief justice of Pakistan, an additional district and sessions judge revealed the daily torment that had driven her to contemplating suicide.

Here are some things I am now supposed to tell you. I am supposed to tell you that this was once a noble profession, and remind you that the reason that Lincoln’s Inn beckons so many Pakistanis is that a lawyer who went there gave us this country. And that our entire struggle for independence would’ve been nothing without lawyers. Then, we collectively mourn how low the profession has sunk, and marvel at the speed of our descent.

But that would be disingenuous. As a younger lawyer, that nostalgia is alien to me: this is all I have known. Allow me to provide some context. I took my examination to appear before the lower courts soon after my law degree. When the lady giving a presentation – on legal ethics, no less – descended from the stage to give an interview to a waiting camera crew, lawyers crawled onto the stage where piles of answer keys lay. There they sat, cross-legged, for the entirety of the exam. Behind me a colossal gentleman, who was almost certainly a father of four, had a cellphone to his ear through which someone dictated the answers. As I had the chance to cash in on the personal ‘reference’ of a representative of the Bar Council, I had to resist the urge not to submit a blank sheet of paper and pass anyway. And then, there was the invigilator – who hovered towards me ominously from across the room, only to ask me why I wasn’t cheating. He then told me the answer to the question I was on was C, before gliding away. (It wasn’t.)

With such auspicious beginnings, I’ll admit that the continued disappointment is rather naive on my part. The calculus for disappointment, after all, involves a difference between expectation and outcome. And as to this case, lawyers quite literally spelt out what they would do if any action was taken against their illegal encroachment. In a video that was leaked from a police station a few weeks ago, lawyers threatened an SHO that they would set his station on fire if any action was taken against their encroachment.

They said they would react with violence and they did just that. All they faced by way of repercussions was having to buy a bouquet, and pretending to be sorry for a cellphone camera.

At this point, I am likely expected to drift into turgid outpourings on the structural problems that enable the impunity. And to tell you that this was bound to happen – because who would expect elected lawyers to discipline their own voters? And that it would be rather daft to expect them to do so for demanding things like state-provided land for personal offices, when the same disciplinarians built their campaigns on promises of exactly that.

But this piece isn’t about all that. It’s about one word: But. You may remember But from, “Yes, people died when we attacked a hospital. But they started it.”

The Islamabad Bar Council’s press release flits past a single bullet-point condemning the attack, and uses the other five to announce ‘demands’, and call for its patented ‘strike’. (On strikes: the Bar Council has decided it has the power to spontaneously order advocates not to appear in court, threatening suspension or cancellation of licences for disobedience.) The Supreme Court Bar Association makes a backhanded reference to ‘an unfortunate event’, but spends much of its word-count castigating the chief justice himself.

I understand that, to earn loyalty points, I too, am expected to provide justifications for what they did. And to explain to you that not all chambers are ‘illegal-illegal chambers’, because there are also ‘legal-illegal chambers’. And that this means that even though some of these have literally been built on a football field, they are legal because they have been there long enough, and no one has had much of a problem in the recent past. And that, in any case, adequate notice ought to have been given before demolition. And that land grabbing lawyers don’t want to be there, either, but the high court sits on land earmarked for the district courts. And that this means that lawyers have nowhere else to go.

What I am not supposed to do is suggest that even if the district courts await relocation, this bears no legal connection to the provision of land for lawyers’ personal offices. Or to ask why, even if land is to be provided, the state should pay for it. Or to ask why the same Islamabad Bar Association that now riles them up should not pay for it; the same IBA that charges fees and promises and ‘allots’ land that it does not even own. Or to ask why, if the supposed status quo guaranteed no demolition so long as no new chambers were made, the ‘demands’ now include occupation of the other half of the football ground. Or to ask how feeling entitled enough to build an office on top of a football ground is no less bizarre than doctors insisting on conducting colonoscopies at the Minar-e-Pakistan.

Loyalty to my community dictates that if I have chosen to condemn the attack on the IHC I must now say “Yes, But what happened at the kacheri was also wrong”. Or just as wrong. Or, even, worse.

I will do no such thing.

I choose this not because I am yet another privileged high court lawyer who is disconnected from the lives of those who ‘own’ offices in the Kacheri (I do not own an office, anywhere, and I appear before the lower courts frequently). I will do no such thing because it is immaterial.

What that ‘But’ seeks to do is take two separate issues, and chain them together. Unless there is a provision of law that treats destruction of property as a defence for the offences of rioting, intimidating a judge in his chambers, assault, or trashing a courtroom, I am not interested.

The truth is that the lawyers that attacked the Islamabad High Court committed crimes. Just as those who attacked a hospital in Lahore did. And, as lawyers often argue in court, those who commit crimes are criminals. This is not, to quote the president of the Islamabad Bar Association, an ‘internal matter’. The fact that these lawyers also committed professional misconduct does not shed their criminal responsibility.

The Bar Council may choose not to suspend or cancel licences, even as it threatens to do so for those who disobey strikes, but the Bar Councils’ disciplinary rules do not override the Pakistan Penal Code. Even if judges choose not to take their contempt proceedings to their proper end, these men and women will still have committed a half dozen other crimes that are not crimes against individual judges, but crimes against the public at large.

The demolition of a private office – legal or illegal – is no defence to any of this. And, so, it is irrelevant. And as long as that is the case, my shame will not come with an asterisk. My apology will not come with a But.

Salaar Khan, "The weight of our crimes," The News. 2021-02-13.
Keywords: Law and humanity , High court lawyers , Pakistan Penal code , Pakistan Bar Council , Personal offices , Illegal chambers