Pakistan's Devil's Advocate says he's just doing his job

Published: January 15, 2014
Sharifuddin Pirzada PHOTO: AFP

Sharifuddin Pirzada PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: For more than half a century, Pakistani lawyer Sharifuddin Pirzada has provided the legal cover for the country’s succession of military rulers — but don’t accuse him of supporting dictators.

He was secretary to Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the 1940s, has been attorney general and foreign minister, and authored orders that gave legal weight to two coups d’etat.

Now aged 90, the dapper figure who is reviled by many pro-democracy activists finds himself in the limelight once again as the head of Pervez Musharraf’s defence team, a role that could be his swansong.

Musharraf, the most recent of Pakistan’s four military rulers, who was in power from 1999 to 2008, is facing treason charges relating to his imposition of a state of emergency in 2007.

Pirzada himself wrote the legal order for Musharraf’s emergency rule, updating a similar one he prepared for General Zia-ul-Haq after his 1977 coup.

He rarely grants interviews, but spoke to AFP after a hearing in Musharraf’s treason case. He scoffed at the idea that he is the lawyer of choice for autocrats.

“Certainly not,” said the advocate. “I’m a professional lawyer and appear in cases and do my best.”

He points to his key role in a 1972 Supreme Court verdict that declared Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s second military ruler, a “usurper”.

This came despite the fact that Pirzada had been attorney general for both Yahya and his predecessor Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, whom he also served as foreign minister.

Later, he wrote oaths for judges sworn in by Zia and Musharraf that omitted the commitment to protect the constitution, and drew up documents based on the so-called “doctrine of necessity” to legalise both rulers’ coups.

Regimes led to progress

He draws a clear distinction between political support and the exercise of legal expertise, and beams with professional pride when talking about the Supreme Court judgement that validated Zia’s rule.

“That was a very nice judgement and has been appreciated elsewhere,” he said, adding: “Not that I supported (Zia) or anything like that. I supported the legal position.”

Zia went on to hang the man he ousted, former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and began Islamist reforms that some analysts say contributed to the violent religious extremism the country faces today.

On Musharraf, Pirzada is reluctant to get into the details of the ongoing case, but insists his client is an “excellent man” and defends the record of the four generals who seized power.

“They are called dictators but these were administrators. The progress the country made was through some of these regimes. Some of the politicians were equally good — (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto was good — but both sides counted mistakes,” he said.

Manipulating the judiciary

Pirzada began his legal career in the Bombay High Court before moving to the newly created Pakistan.

Now advanced in years and slightly built, he no longer cuts the same figure in the courtroom but maintains a godfatherly background role, murmuring guidance to junior lawyers.

Always turned out in an immaculate black suit, he usually sports the “Jinnah cap” favoured by the country’s founder but now out of fashion, as he surveys proceedings with an even gaze.

Observers such as Ayaz Amir, a leading newspaper columnist, see his handiwork in the “broad outlines” of the Musharraf case.

Asma Jahangir, a top human rights lawyer and leading light among Pakistani liberals, decries the anti-democratic causes to which Pirzada has lent his support.

“He’s a very skilful lawyer and we have no better authority on constitutional law. People could have been very good architects but built something for Hitler,” she said.

Amir says the fact that Pirzada has achieved such sustained success “has not been so much in propounding brilliant or outstanding legal theories as in his knowledge of manipulating the judiciary”.

Today, Pakistan’s judiciary is seen as less pliant than in the past, energised by the successful lawyers’ protest movement that reinstated judges sacked by Musharraf.

The country achieved its first ever democratic transfer of power at last year’s general election, and another military coup is seen as a distant prospect these days.

But in a country ruled for more than half its life by the armed forces, the threat remains, however remote — and in such a scenario the wily Pirzada could be called upon once again.

He certainly sees no reason to step down just yet.

“There are QCs (senior lawyers) and attorney generals who work till 98. I keep a normal life and am very in control of my timings,” he said.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Jan 15, 2014 - 1:28PM

    If anybody be tried on Article 6. This guy has to be the front runner. He no doubt is a fatherly character when it comes to law and judiciary. But at the end it all comes down to how you are written down in history books. 30 – 50 years from now he will still be remembered in bad context and not a single good one.


  • as
    Jan 15, 2014 - 1:30PM

    Using words like Devils Advocate goes to show the political inclination of this article. If you dont know but Shaifuddin pirzada sahab was amongst trusted Presidential Guards/ confidants of Quaid-e-Azam while the person whom you’re calling a Devil he is a revered leader to some. I think you can give some respect to a leader cum former army chief cum president. His only fault he didnt become a dictator in reality! I think people calling him that should look up the meaning of dictator in Webster dictionary.


  • Aalia
    Jan 15, 2014 - 1:30PM

    ET what a nonsense! A good lawyer is the one who can logically prove his client right. Whats wrong with that? If he is wrong prove this in courts!


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