Sunday, March 18, 2007

What does it take to radicalize lawyers?

The Washington Post's foreign correspondent (I am so glad some news organiztions are still maintaining them!) Griff White reports today on lawyers taking to the streets in violent protests against General Musarraf.

The latest round of protests came in the eastern city of Lahore, the scene of demonstrations earlier this week. On Saturday, police lobbed tear gas canisters at lawyers in business suits who responded by throwing rocks, according to witness accounts and television footage.

Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Post newspaper in Lahore, said that about 100 lawyers were injured when police charged them with batons. He said police later ransacked about two dozen offices belonging to the protesters.

"The police apparently had orders to stop the protests at any cost, and they came out swinging," he said. "The level of violence has clearly escalated."

Unrest has grown quickly in Pakistan since March 9, when Musharraf suspended the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, citing unspecified abuses of power. Chaudhry had been expected to rule on several key cases this year, including the timing of upcoming elections and on whether Musharraf can retain his role as head of the army while also serving as president.

The lawyers and journalists expressed concern that the move against chief justice Chaudhry is the first step in extinguishing democratic institutions and the balance of power in Pakistan. Among other outrages of the day, police opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas against journalists and cameramen covering the riot. General Musharraf issued a statement that the attack took place without his orders. But he cannot place the removal of Chief Justice Chaudhry at some others' doorstep.

How close is the U.S. to this sort of abuse of power? I certainly hope to never see a dictator in power. But the Bush administration has taken many steps that transfer great amounts of power and discretion from Congress and the judiciary, and concentrate it in the presidency. The most recent example is the firing of the formerly independent attorneys general, known as Gonzalesgate. Other examples that spring to mind are the series of presidential signing statements that claim to considerably alter the effect of the laws as passed by Congress (see here, here and here. Then, there was the Executive Order 13422 (here that was designed to rein in those pesky careerists in various agencies who insist on things like global warming. See this Boston Globe article by Charlie Savage on how VP Cheney has pushed to expand presidential powers.

The Pakistani lawyers and journalists were willing to risk direct confrontation with Musharraf's police and troops; will we ever see American lawyers and journalists so outraged by the actions of our administration that they will take stronger action than the ABA investigation of signing statements (link)?

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