"How is it possible for a lawyer, especially while in court, to be carrying a rifle?"
QUETTA: Even as smoke and blood dominated the site of the suicide blast that hit Quetta’s Sandeman Provincial Civil Hospital on Aug 8, the tragic reality was obvious that scores of families in this small city had, with one stroke, been condemned to years of suffering and grief.
And for the legal community, the bombing was nothing short of the decimation of their ranks: of the over 70 people who died that day, the overwhelming majority – 54 – were lawyers.
Effectively, an entire generation of practitioners of the law has been wiped out, creating a gap that may take decades to fill.
Among the dead were 11 well-known and practising lawyers of the Supreme Court.
Leading figures among them include the vice president and two members of the Balochistan Bar Council, Qahir Shah, Baz Mohammad Kakar and Dawood Kasi respectively.
Abdul Ghani Mashwani, Noorullah Kakar, Rasheed Khokar, Qazi Bashir, Munzar Siddique and Adnan Kasi, who practised in the Supreme Court, were also amongst those killed.
Of some half a dozen barristers that were native to Balochistan, three had been practicing law in the provincial capital.
Of them, barrister Amanullah Achakzai – who had also been the principal of the Law College Quetta – was shot dead by unknown assailants on June 8 while he was on the way to work, and the hospital blast claimed the life of barrister Adnan Kasi.
Barrister Amir Lehri did not manage to reach the health facility that fateful day as his community gathered there, and thus he was saved. He is now the lone local barrister in the province.
The death of all these senior members of the legal fraternity has created a vacuum in the profession.
While their families have been left bereft, great difficulties have also been created for litigants across the province.
Further, activism in Balochistan has taken a serious hit: among those who died were many men in early- or mid-career, who were human rights activists and had played an active role in the ‘lawyers’ movement’.
Many of the voices that lobbied over issues such as that of ‘missing’ persons, or the need for an independent judiciary, have been silenced.
“The majority of them [lawyers] belonged to middle-class families and had been educated at institutions of good repute [in Pakistan] or even abroad,” advocate Habib Tahir told this scribe.
“But with one blast, they have all vanished, leaving lifelong misery for their families and friends. If you look into their personal lives, you’ll find that they were all in their 40s or early 50s, so they have left behind young families.”
Here in Quetta, some of the lawyers believe that this attack against their community had originally been planned for June 8, when Amanullah Achakzai was gunned down.
But a large number of lawyers did not gather at that time.
Therefore, this thinking goes, another attempt to execute the same plan was made exactly two months later, the target – or bait – this time being Bilal Anwar Kasi, the president of the Balochistan Bar Association, who was gunned down while he was on his way to the courts on the morning of Aug 8.
This time, the grotesque plan succeeded: as per procedure, the body was shifted to Sandeman Hospital, while lawyers from across the city rushed to the facility in large numbers – there to meet their deaths.
The elections of the Balochistan High Court Bar Association had been scheduled for Aug 13, and there had been much enthusiasm among the legal community for the tripartite contest between the panels.
In the aftermath of the bombing, the courts wear a deserted look as most of the lawyers attend the bar rooms of the Sessions, District and High Courts, receiving condolences.
A number of the office-bearers of lawyers’ bodies are in Karachi, looking after the injured persons who have been shifted there. Expressing complete solidarity with the bereaved families and the injured, Quetta’s lawyers are not these days appearing in the courts.
The office-holders of central legal bodies and those of the other provinces are visiting their colleagues in Quetta in the High Court bar room, exchanging condolences and considering future lines of action.
“We demand that the federal and provincial governments provide Kalashnikov licenses to lawyers and those for 30-bore pistols to journalists across the country so that they can protect themselves,” says Chaudhry Muhammad Hussain, vice chairman of the Punjab Bar Council in his address to mourners in the High Court bar room.
Not all agree, though.
Sardar Tahir Hussain, the head of the Independent Lawyers’ panel, maintains: “It is an absurd demand. How is it possible to a lawyer, especially while in court, to be carrying a rifle?”
Fearing a harsh reaction from the legal fraternity over this horrifying bombing, the Balochistan government has announced compensation worth Rs10 million for the family of each of the persons who died, and Rs5m for those who have been injured seriously.
The government has additionally offered to bear the expenses for medical treatment at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), Quetta, and the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi, as well as the transport, boarding and lodging expenses of injured attendants and lawyers’ bodies’ office-bearers during their stay in Karachi.
The Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, has visited Quetta and handed out compensation money: half a million for the dead and Rs250,000 for the injured.
Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri has also announced that education-related expenditures incurred by the deceased and injured lawyers’ children will be met by establishing a fund for higher studies in the country’s universities and even abroad.
“The government always makes announcements in a rush but implements them very slowly,” says Munir Kakar, talking to Dawn on the phone from Karachi.
“The patients and their attendants are facing a lot of problems in getting accommodation, travelling and in getting their meals.”
One of the men injured, Chaudhry Ikram, is under treatment at hospital, he tells me.
But his attendants – his wife, a sister and two young children – have to stay with friends and relatives.
“There are also issues regarding treatment at hospitals that have become purely commercial institutions,” he continues.
“Of the patients who were discharged, three – Mahrab Kakar, Abbas and Hameed – had to be readmitted for surgery after a couple of days. But nobody from the government is prepared to accept any responsibility.”
Besides the grief and pain being suffered by those directly affected by the bombing, litigants – the poor ones in particular – are also facing a great deal of hardship because their counsel have been killed.
They are all in a state of worry about their cases, and must decide whether to carry on with the same law firm or research other ones. Most, though, have no option other than continuing with the same office.
Mohammad Hussain, who helps lawyers in maintaining the records of their cases, knows this all too well: “So much so,” he says, “that even on the day of the funerals of our lawyers, clients kept calling and asking for their case files to be returned.”
“It has now been nearly three weeks since the ghastly incident and law chambers are either still closed or are not functioning properly,” says litigant Amir Ali Agha. “But given the situation, it is hard to demand anything of those who have lost so many of their number.”
“Yes, of course I am perturbed about what will happen to my cases,” says another litigant, Zaheer Ahmad.
“I have already paid almost 80 per cent of the fees. The judgement was supposed to have been declared by the civil court on that very day. Now, I’ve been told that Ghias Nausherwani, the senior colleague of the late Manzar Siddique, will be counsel in all of the latter’s cases. But what the terms will be is still unknown.”
Grief and the uncertainty hang over Quetta like a pall, and many of the residents of this beleaguered city say that they have borne more than anyone should have to.
As the legal fraternity mourns, little hope is evident on the horizon.
Header photo: AFP