The Supreme Court flexes its muscles
You may like or dislike Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry but you cannot ignore him. Until recently, power in Pakistan flowed from the GHQ and the ISI headquarters. The Chief Justice has, however, proven that the institution he is heading is not far behind.
In just four hearings, the Court decided the fate of former PM Gilani who was sent packing within hours. Suddenly, Gilani’s babbling about the interpretation of article 248 of the Constitution, dealing with the initiation of criminal or other proceedings against the President, came to a halt.
President Zardari is often regarded as a master player who can out-maneuver his competitors, particularly the Sharif brothers. Malik Riaz Hus- sain of Bahria Town, one of the richest if not the richest person in Pakistan, is a force to reckon with. His rags to riches story within a short period of simply 20 years with just a Matric certificate in hand, has shown our children that education is not necessary in order to be successful. The combination of Zardari and Riaz was seen as a formidable alliance against the Chief Justice; and the rumors about Arslan Iftikhar’s foreign trips and acquisitions were regarded by many as finally cornering his father.
However, the Chief Justice overturned the pressure simply by initiating a suo motu action regarding allegations of business dealings between Malik Riaz and his own son for attempting to influence the judicial process; an unprecedented move in a country where politicians go to any lengths to protect their sons from prosecution.
The suo motu case was initiated on June 6, 2012 in response to a series of talk shows aired on the electronic media in the period between June 3 and June 6. These talk shows contained insinuations alluding to dealings between the son of the Chief Justice and Malik Riaz. Two leading hosts, Hamid Mir and Kamran Khan, in whose programs the allegations surfaced were called to the Court to record their statements. Kamran Khan informed the Court that an anonymous phone call in May claimed that Dr Iftikhar was allegedly using his position to extract money from wealthy
people whose cases are pending before the Supreme Court, including that of Malik Riaz Hussain
Malik Riaz apparently initiated the rumors by sharing documentation showing Dr Iftikhar’s summer vacation trips to London over the past three years, including tenancy agreements for five star accommodations in Central London and Monte Carlo and receipts/ invoices showing payments made from the accounts/ credit cards controlled by him or his family members.
As it happens with many elite in this country, Malik Riaz was under medical treatment in London at the time of the commencement of the proceedings and his son Ali conveniently left for Dubai. Upon repeated directions, they finally appeared in the Court on June 12 and filed a statement along with a set of documents.
Interestingly, Malik Riaz unabashedly admitted of bribing or attempting to bribe high functionaries of the State or other influential persons. He admitted in a TV interview that he puts wheels to his files in government offices. However, the intriguing aspect to his dealings with Dr Iftikhar is that despite doling out huge sums of money starting from 2009, Riaz rarely received any return for the same in the form of favorable verdicts from the Court; incidentally making the Chief Justice’s case stronger.
In any event, the Court on June 14 disposed of the case by relying on the prophetic saying that the one who gives bribes as well as the one who takes bribes are both doomed to hell fire. The Attorney General was directed to set the machinery of the State in motion so that all those who may have committed any illegal acts, including Malik Riaz, Dr. Arsalan Iftikhar, and Riaz’ son-in-law Salman Ali Khan, be brought to book with the full force and rigor of the law. The Court noted that such exchange of bribes with the attempt, even a failed one, to influence the course of justice, is illegal and punishable under various laws.
It may be pointed out that the documentation furnished by Malik Riaz in the Court related to only 4.5% of the total money allegedly spent on behalf of Malik Riaz. The total alleged amount spent as illegal gratification is around Rs. 342.5 million, in the form of facilitation during foreign trips and by way of cash transfers, which comprise the largest chunk of the alleged bribes: Rs. 327 million.
As if out of the blue, an off the record recording of Mubashir Lucman and Mehr Bokhari’s interview with Malik Riaz on Dunya TV did enough to kill the Dr Arslan Iftikhar story. The rest was done by Malik Riaz himself by addressing a press conference at the Marriott after his appearance in the Court on June 12. He was issued a contempt of court notice the very next day and barred from making any further remarks about the judiciary.
If it was the intention of the ruling party to exert pressure on the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court by gradually releasing material to the media against Dr Arslan Iftikhar, it apparently has failed at least for the moment. This could not deter the Chief Justice from ruling against the Prime Minister who was held guilty of contempt of court by a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court, for failing to comply with the orders given in the NRO case. The Court disqualified the PM from being a member of the Parliament in terms of Article 63(1) (g) of the Constitution, on and from the date of pronouncement of the judg- ment dated April 26, 2012 with all consequences. Gilani ceased to be the Prime Minister effective the same date and the Election Commission was ordered to issue a notification of his disqualification from being a member of the National Assembly.
Is all of the above good for Pakistan? I would say that it is good in the long run for a number of reasons. To quote Justice Khilji Arif Hussain in the Dr Arslan suo motu case, “the judges are … in the public domain, all persons exercising State functions are in the eyes of the people. Although family members of public functionaries are, properly speaking, not performing State functions, the alleged facts of this case highlight the necessity of extreme caution and discretion in their private and public dealings and conduct.” Regardless of the fate of Dr Arslan Ifthikar, the proceedings of the case will help in not only the superior court judges but also their family members being careful in their public dealings.
Similarly, impartially speaking, the task of interpretation of laws is not the job of the executive including the Law Ministry; it is the function of the courts. One may disagree with it, but it attains finality once decided by the Supreme Court. The Prime Minister and his coterie of advisors who tried to make a joke out of this whole exercise, eventually had to pay the price. The lesson hopefully is learnt and all concerned would now know as to where the lines are drawn and should not be crossed. Anees Jillani is an advocate of the Supreme Court and a member of the Washington, DC Bar. He has been writing for various publications for more than 20 years and has authored several books.