IT SEEMS to be raining court cases in Pakistan. While some may attribute it to judicial activism, this basically indicates not a trend but a tactic between rivals: the court vs the government, the military vs the government and a certain gang of politicians, and the government vs the military or/and the judiciary, which some believe is prejudiced against the ruling coalition. These high-value court cases, in fact, are indicators of the mood of the various powerful State institutions and stakeholders, and their political inclination.
People now wonder if Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf will be shown the door on 8 August, which is the deadline set by the Supreme Court to comply with its orders of writing a letter to the Swiss authorities for reopening the case of money laundering against President Asif Ali Zardari. Ashraf’s predecessor Yusuf Raza Gilani was sacked on 25 April for not writing the letter, hence, had to be proceeded against under the contempt of court law.
The Supreme Court had started hearing the case in November 2011 to repeal all advantages granted primarily to the PPP government by former president Pervez Musharraf as a result of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) negotiated between the general and former PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto. The NRO resulted in withdrawal of corruption cases initiated by the Musharraf regime against many politicians, mainly the PPP leadership. Benazir and her husband Zardari were accused of stashing ill-begotten money in Swiss accounts and a general impression is that the Musharraf regime had almost caught the PPP leadership with “its pants down” before it was saved from the embarrassment thanks to the NRO.
While the Supreme Court has not advised its accountability courts to pursue the case against Zardari, it is keen to see the prime minister write the letter to the Swiss authorities. However, as recently stated by PPP stalwart Aitzaz Ahsan, “No party PM will write the letter.” This is due to two reasons: 1. It has become a matter of ego for the PPP as it involves pointing a finger to the late Benazir. 2. The PPP would possibly gain through a clash with the judiciary, which is considered by many as not entirely free, but sowing the seeds of political instability.
So, the PPP regime seems to have opted to give the judges a run for their money by challenging them on other scores. For instance, its prime ministers refuse to write the said letter. Not only that, Parliament has passed another law amending the contempt of court law with the intention of restraining the judiciary, which is slowly acquiring the colour and tone of an Islamic Qazi court rather than a common law court. In any case, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s leadership has turned extremely populist and into a trial court rather than an appellate court. Recently, it has even admitted and decided a case determining the price of a samosa. Naturally, the new law was challenged in the court.
But the most challenging act seems to be the case against Chief Justice Iftikhar’s son Arsalan Iftikhar. Allegedly, Arsalan blackmailed real estate tycoon Malik Riaz into paying him more than PKR 36 crore in bribe for getting favourable judgments in cases being heard in the Supreme Court. Although nothing has been definitely proven against him as yet, the glitterati of Lahore talk about Arsalan’s extravagant lifestyle, which comes as a surprise since he didn’t have a job three years ago. The Chief Justice comes from a humble background and claims to have no property, a statement that adds to the complexity of his son’s fortune. Riaz, who is considered as being close to both the military and Zardari, has continued to point fingers at Arsalan, his father and the entire family for extorting money and favours out of him.
The Arsalan-Riaz case is now being heard by the Supreme Court and probed independently by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising members from the country’s prime anti-fraud agency, the National Accountability Bureau, the Islamabad Police and the Federal Investigation Agency. Clearly, this is a card in the government’s hand that Chief Justice Iftikhar and his team of close aides seem to try to destroy by casting aspersions on the JIT’s credibility. It is not a coincidence that after every hearing by the JIT, there is an effort by the pro-Chief Justice wing of a certain media group to point fingers at the credibility of JIT. The effort increases around every hearing by the court or the investigating team.
The yet-to-be-proven case of extortion and the players involved in it make the head spin at the complexity of the case. According to sources, Riaz, who is reputed to be an “ISI asset”, could not have taken the risk of so brutally challenging the Chief Justice without taking the security establishment on board. The question is how does one juxtapose this assumption against another that the higher judiciary has the army’s support to destabilise the government?
Recently, the SC has even admitted and decided a case determining the price of a samosa
Popular human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir believes that the judiciary has a self-serving attitude. Although her assessment may not apply to all judges, it does explain the nature of the beast. Pakistan’s higher judiciary has always played second fiddle to the powerful military establishment. Some would argue that this has changed since the court barred the military from further takeover in the NRO judgment. Moreover, it also seems to be vigorously pursuing the case of missing persons, including those from Balochistan, a matter that would certainly not make the powerful army happy.
However, this may be nothing else but part of the larger narrative manipulation to keep the security State and its military establishment intact and powerful. While the Balochistan case, like the Asghar Khan case regarding extortion by the ISI, has earned kudos for both the Supreme Court for seeming to do something and the military for appearing tolerant, the fact is that nothing has really happened to alleviate the problems of the Baloch or in harnessing the ISI.
EACH SIDE in the current political battle understands how vital it is to have a positive narrative. For instance, Chief Justice Iftikhar initially tried to project himself in the light of the 2nd Muslim Caliph Omar before he was convinced to get off the Bench and not hear his son’s case. But the convincing by brother judges may also be due to the fact that not all judges are possibly willing to support the Chief Justice in nursing his wounded ego. Despite being fearful of the government’s designs, there are rumours of a division among the 17 Supreme Court judges who may not all be willing to send another prime minister home. In fact, in the last hearing, Justice Asif Khosa asked the attorney general (AG) to find a via media in the Swiss letter case indicating that the court may not be in a rush to sack yet another PM. It means he asked the AG to find a middle way so that the court may not have to hold the new premier in contempt and thus dismiss him too.
Similarly, there is some discomfort among the judges on the contempt of court case as the judiciary came under fire even from a friendly opposition mainly because the Chief Justice had criticised the PML-N, known to be close to the judge, for not doing enough to block changes in the contempt law in Parliament. Subsequently, the Chief Justice gave a statement to appease the unhappy PML-N that could be showing an attitude to pressurise the judiciary as the accountability courts are set to hear corruption references against the Sharif brothers.
While Ashraf’s sacking stands a 50-50 chance, the battle between the various institutions and stakeholders is likely to get tenser. In the words of a top government appointee, this is going to get viciously violent — even bloody.
The army, which is viewed as having the veto power in this power game, is in no hurry to intervene as it may take a decision regarding which side it chooses after Gen Ashfaq Kiyani has finally retired in 2013. Until then, both the Chief Justice and the entrepreneur, or even the government are pawns in the hands of the GHQ.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc