by Saad Hafiz
The Supreme Court (SC) has decided to indict Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court for his refusal to write a letter to the Swiss authorities asking them to restore corruption cases against President Zardari in that country. The contempt proceedings against PM Gilani stem from an earlier SC ruling which threw out the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) in 2009.
The NRO issued by the former President General Musharraf in 2007 granted amnesty to politicians including President Zardari, political workers and bureaucrats who were accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, murder, and terrorism between January 1, 1986, and October 12, 1999, the time between two states of martial law in Pakistan. The NRO, which erased twenty years worth of corruption charges in one sweep, can be best described as a licence to steal and keep your ill-gotten gain without fear of the law. If the SC judgment in the contempt case is intended to prod the government to implement the NRO judgment, it can only set a good precedent in the fight against official corruption.
Regardless of political affiliations, the normal reaction to the SC verdict in the PM case should have been focused on the fact that corruption is a very serious matter, which should not be allowed to be brushed under the carpet. The law must take its course and the PM can seek redress through the appeals process and hurrah to the people as the independent judiciary is alive and well. One can wholeheartedly agree with Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy, as they undoubtedly are today.”
As expected, the reaction to the SC verdict is being played along party lines. Opponents strongly feel that the government has been playing games with the apex court for far too long by not implementing the SC judgments for over two years and that the PM and other ministers deserve to be punished accordingly. An overly emotional reaction to the Court’s judgment saluted the honorable Judges for upholding the dignity and honor of tSupreme he judiciary and suggested that the judge’s names will be written in golden words in the history books.
Some political commentators and government supporters look at the judgment from different perspective, suggesting that a rickety democratic government presented a soft target for the court. They see the recent verdict by the SC as a selective judgment, which does not account for other possible contempt cases beyond just official corruption. These cases include those involving the country’s intelligence agencies involved in disappearance of thousand of persons particularly in Baluchistan. Human Rights Watch in its 2011 report titled, ‘We can Torture, Kill, or Keep you for Years’, suggests that the SC’s approach to enforced disappearance cases in Pakistan has been to focus on establishing the whereabouts of the missing individuals while being reluctant to press for accountability of security forces and government agencies.
It is probably an understatement to suggest that past SC judgments have not helped the cause of democracy and the rule of law in the country. The following examples come to mind. In 1954, the otherwise brilliant Chief Justice Munir invoked the ‘doctrine of necessity’, validating the dissolution of Pakistan’s first constituent assembly, which many feel set the precedent for future authoritarian intervention the country. To his credit, Justice Munir also wrote a thought-provoking book, From Jinnah to Zia, arguing that Mr. Jinnah stood for a tolerant and secular state where Muslims and non-Muslims had equal rights.
Later, Chief Justice CJ Anwarul Haq is ‘ill-famed’ for giving gave legitimacy to General Zia’s martial law and for upholding the decision of the Lahore High Court, which sentenced Mr ZA Bhutto to death for conspiring in the murder of a political opponent. Ironically, unlike incumbent Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Justice Anwarul Haq became the first Justice and perhaps only chief justice to refuse taking the oath under the military imposed PCO and resigned on conscientious grounds in 1981.
Beyond the cases of the ‘disappeared’, the security establishment has always escaped accountability for causing great harm to country by fighting and losing needless wars, pursuing flawed national security policies and more recently for their incompetence in the bin Laden and Mehran episodes. It is not unreasonable to hope that the SC will show an even handed approach in dealing with an elected government and other powerful institutions like the armed forces who are in effect a law unto themselves.