I first met Asma Jahangir, the champion of human rights in Pakistan who died Sunday, at the Supreme Court in Islamabad. It was September 2007, and General Pervez Musharraf’s eight-year rule was tottering. For several months, a popular movement led by lawyers had harried him on the streets, and now, Musharraf feared, the judges were poised to disqualify him from office.
As a journalist, I was there to observe the hundreds of lawyers clamoring for Musharraf’s worst fears to be realized. Soon, they were outnumbered. The ranks of the baton-wielding police swelled as reinforcements arrived, including a contingent dressed in plain clothes with rocks in their pockets. The police began beating the lawyers on their heads, in some cases breaking the protesters’ spectacles, and causing blood to pour onto the black blazers that symbolize the legal profession in Pakistan. Soon, rocks began to fly, scattering the ranks of the demonstrators. Then came the tear-gas, letting off a cloudy trail as the canisters arced in the direction of the protesters and journalists, forcing everyone to retreat inside the Supreme Court building.
Jahangir was unfazed. She shepherded the lawyers, activists and journalists inside and then led them to the kitchen, where they could wash their faces, sip water, and reflect on the events convulsing their country. A military ruler was resorting to repressive methods in order to cleave to power. The rule of law had deteriorated to the point where the police were laying siege to the seat of justice. Confronted with such force, what hope was there for a peaceful resistance whose only weapon was the constitution? Still, Jahangir remained confident. She had lived through such moments before.