The steps of the New York County Courthouse in downtown Manhattan were a sea of black and white Tuesday as hundreds of New York City attorneys gathered in support of their counterparts in Pakistan, thousands of whom have been arrested in recent days under General Pervez Musharraf's imposition of martial law. Similar rallies are set to take place across the country from Washington D.C. to Seattle this week.
Speakers at the New York rally included Ali Ahsan, the son of Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, who is currently jailed. The younger Mr. Ahsan, formerly of the New York City law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen, and Hamilton, spoke in urgent tones of the plight of thousands of Pakistani lawyers presently incarcerated.
"My father is in confinement, and my mother has warrants out for her arrest," said Mr. Ahsan. "But at least my parents get some mention in international media. Thousands of Pakistani lawyers do not have the bright light of international media shining on their individual cases."
Barry Kamins, president of The New York City Bar Association, a co-organizer of the rally, expressed grave concern for the physical well-being of the Pakistani lawyers and judges.
"We are learning that at least some of these lawyers are being mistreated, perhaps tortured," he said.
Following his public remarks, Mr. Kamins told a smaller group of listeners that he had received an e-mail from students at Lahore University expressing appreciation for the New York City attorneys' solidarity.
He said the students had written to him of violence.
"Their e-mail said, 'Riot police stormed our courthouses and brutalized thousands of lawyers and students'" he said.
Kathryn Grant Madigan, president of the New York State Bar Association, quoted Act 2 of Shakespeare's "Henry VI," in which one character, during an exchange on how to overthrow the government, says, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,' explaining the Bard's meaning was that lawyers are targeted first in attempts to destroy the rule of law in a society.
Following the speakers' remarks, this reporter asked Mr. Ahsan if there is any legitimacy to the concern that if Gen. Musharraf were to step aside, Islamic extremists might seize power.
"To me, that [idea that only Gen. Musharraf can contain the rise of Islamist extremism in Pakistan] is ridiculous scare-mongering," he said. "Musharraf['s approval rating] is at 21 percent. The only ones less popular are Islamists. Pro-democracy forces would sweep a fair election." He believes the U.S. is squeamish about pushing for such an election because of the "messy democratic process" it would entail, but says he personally believes such "messy" democracy-as exists "in Spain, or Poland" is the only way to achieve long-term goodwill toward the U.S. and nurture free societies.
Mr. Ahsan also spoke about the violence, and the importance of standing with the Pakistani legal community.
"The most vivid image in my mind is the [Pakistani] police beating people," he said.
He analogized the efforts of lawyers to defend civil society in Pakistan and worldwide to recent efforts on the part of Burmese monks to stand up for human rights.
"The black coat is our saffron robe," he said, referring to the Burmese monks' attire and the white shirts and dark suits, the typical outfit worn by Pakistani lawyers, that organizers have urged lawyers to wear to this and other U.S. demonstrations.
On Wednesday, lawyers and judges organized by the American Bar Association will rally in Washington D.C. at 11:30 am in front of the James Madison Building, and then encircle the Supreme Court in support of Pakistan's legal community. Also on Wednesday morning, attorneys and judges in Seattle will gather downtown.
At the New York rally, which seems to have been the first, about two hundred lawyers were gathered on the steps in the chilly, sunlit afternoon.
"I think it's great that there were so many middle aged men here - those are not your typical rally-goers," said Jessica Neuwirth, a lawyer in private practice and president of Equality Now, an international women's rights organization. "That shows how deep the support is in New York for the legal community in Pakistan."
The attorneys present spanned a broad range of age, race, and specialty from corporate to nonprofit law. Many spoke of attending the rally as an expression of solidarity with fellow lawyers and of the importance of principle over politics.
"It's irrelevant if we're liberals or conservatives," said Dora Marta Gruner, an associate at Debevoise and Plimpton, a corporate firm. "It's an issue of supporting lawyers in another country in upholding the rule of law."