Pakistan polls: HC judge's revolt is sad but unremarkable; judiciary has never been free of army's interference

Islamabad High Court's Justice Shaukat Siddiqui has alleged that Pakistan's ISI is pressuring judges to fix verdicts and remove from the election candidates the army dislikes.

Sreemoy Talukdar July 23, 2018 21:25:19 IST
Pakistan polls: HC judge's revolt is sad but unremarkable; judiciary has never been free of army's interference

For many, Justice Shaukat Siddiqui's revolt won't come as a surprise. The Islamabad High Court judge had alleged that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is pressuring judges to fix verdicts and remove from the political fray candidates the country's powerful military-intelligence establishment dislikes. These claims only serve to confirm all the worst forebodings about the upcoming general elections.

For India, these developments carry an unequivocal message: expect more of the same, no matter who sits on the Pakistan prime minister's chair after Wednesday's polls — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's (PML-N) army-loving and disgruntled Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, or "Pindi puppet" Imran Khan. The khakis remain in firm control.

In an order sheet last Wednesday in a case related to forced disappearances of citizens, Justice Siddiqui had accused the Islamabad Police of working in cahoots with spy agencies to create a "state within a state" and violate the fundamental rights of citizens. A senior puisne judge of the Islamabad High Court, he had slammed intelligence officers for interfering in the judiciary's work, calling for the institution to be saved from "all kinds of influences".

Pakistan polls HC judges revolt is sad but unremarkable judiciary has never been free of armys interference

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers exit the high court. AFP/Farooq Naseem

The judge wrote: "Everyone knows... how proceedings are manipulated, from where strings are pulled and when power is wielded and maneuvered to achieve the desired results. It is a matter of great concern that even benches are constituted and cases are marked to different benches on the direction of such elements."

Pakistani newspaper Dawn has pointed out that despite being a senior puisne judge at the Islamabad High Court, Siddiqui was kept out of the bench that decided on the appeals filed by Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif and her husband Captain Mohammad Safdar against their conviction in the Avenfield corruption reference. Their appeals were rejected.

On Saturday, Justice Siddiqi stepped up his attack on the ISI and accused it of controlling the judiciary and media, creating designer benches to achieve favourable verdicts and pressuring judges to keep Sharif and his family in jail until after the elections.

Addressing the Rawalpindi District Bar Association, he said: "In different cases, the ISI forms benches of its choice to get desired results. The ISI had asked the chief justice to make sure that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz should not come out of jail before the 25 July elections. It had also asked him not to include me in the bench hearing the appeal of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter in the Avenfield case. The chief justice told the ISI that he would make a bench of its choice."

The beleaguered judge, who is facing a trial on "misconduct", claimed that "those with guns" have wrested control of the judiciary and had even offered him the chief justice's post "by September" if he did their bidding. He also said that he knew "who takes whose message to the Supreme Court". Justice Siddiqui's comments are serious but unremarkable. They point to one more instance of the prostration of Pakistan's judiciary before the army — the only institution that could have served as a bulwark for the country's shaky democracy but never could bring itself to show enough courage.

Right now, the judiciary is little more than a henchman for the military, providing constitutional cover for its nefarious acts. Hardcore criminals and designated terrorists are walking out of jail to contest elections, while civilian candidates (mostly) from Nawaz Sharif's PML-N are being incarcerated with dubious charges.

Since Pakistan's Supreme Court ousted Nawaz Sharif from the prime minister's post last year after convicting him in a corruption case, four PML-N candidates have found themselves at the wrong end of the law. The latest to fall was Hanif Abbasi, slapped with a life term in jail in an unprecedented midnight verdict by an anti-narcotics court on Saturday. Abbasi, a close aide of Nawaz, was a strong candidate and the purported favourite against Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, who had the backing of Pakistan's new "King's Party" — Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The move has been criticised as another instance of the judiciary acting in collusion with the army to fix the electoral pitch in favour of Imran Khan.

If the courts don't get you, the army will. Nawaz Sharif is languishing in jail, but so determined is the army to extinguish all possibilities of a fightback from the former prime minister that it has moved behind the scenes to systematically weaken his party with a combination of coercive and intimidatory tactics. PML-N is being decapitated, with senior leaders either facing criminal cases or tremendous pressure to defect to PTI. Some are being forced to contest as "independents". Hundreds of party workers are being put behind bars.

The Guardian quoted Omar Wariach, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty, as saying: "Hundreds have been arbitrarily arrested for the sole reason that they support Nawaz Sharif… What was once a vibrant and lively political space has now become suffocatingly small." The newspaper also writes of PML-N candidate Rana Iqbal Siraj, who recorded a video message alleging that the ISI was "torturing and threatening him to give up his backing of Sharif", but the leader has since "recanted" the statement.

Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar is reportedly furious about Justice Siddiqui's statement. He has declared that the judiciary is completely free and under no form of pressure. Few would believe him, not the least because Justice Nisar's "missionary zeal" of bringing Nawaz Sharif and his family members to book resembles a pursuit of justice less and an instance of personal vendetta more. It was Nisar who had ousted the former prime minister from power for not being "honest and righteous" enough, disqualified him from public office and slapped him with a 10-year prison term in a corruption case, though critics have pointed out that the evidence against Sharif was not conclusive and at best, circumstantial.

The CJP has also been accused of "judicial activism" in vigorously pursuing specific cases that cast Nawaz Sharif's PML-N in poor light. Some analysts say that this "activism" is symptomatic of a "politicised judiciary" that is fast diminishing in stature. Critics say Justice Nisar's actions are limited to misdemeanors by the civilian administration, while he has steered clear of activism in controversial cases involving the country's military-intelligence establishment.

For instance, while Justice Nisar has been going after US-exiled Husain Haqqani — former Pakistani ambassador to the US and a fierce critic of the Pakistan military — and has been pressuring the government to bring him back from the US, the CJP has been remarkably quiet about retired General Pervez Musharraf, the tyrant who had led a coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and fled Pakistan while facing charges of treason. In 2016, Musharraf had admitted that General Raheel Sharif, former Chief of the Army Staff, had helped influence the courts so that he could escape the country, according to a report in The New York Times.

Therefore, Justice Nisar's claim that the judiciary in Pakistan is "free from all pressures" does not ring true. If anything, as Haqqani — now the director of Washington DC-based think tank Hudson Institute —has argued, Justice Nisar's actions reek of political bias and does not augur well for the judiciary's role as an unbiased interpreter of the Constitution. "Justice Nisar has made his political biases well known, and the case against Sharif proceeded in reverse order. Instead of beginning in a trial court where evidence of his wrongdoing was established beyond reasonable doubt, he was first disqualified by the Supreme Court and then put on trial," Haqqani wrote for The Hindu.

The political fortunes of Nawaz Sharif, who is believed to be suffering from debilitating kidney and heart ailments and might be shifted to a hospital, is meant to be a lesson for politicians to deter them from even thinking about crossing the military's path and challenging its supremacy as the sole custodian of all power. A diabetic with heart issues in the past, Nawaz was deliberately kept in miserable conditions and denied even basic facilities at the Rawalpindi prison.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that the deterioration of his health wasn't exactly a cosmic development unrelated to the treatment meted out to him.

Meanwhile, even as Nawaz suffers in jail, Imran Khan is busy accusing the former prime minister in election rallies of "protecting India's interests". This might appear as madness from Pakistan's "PM-select"; it is more likely that he has finally discovered the path to power in Pakistan.

Which points to the final lesson in the sordid saga of Pakistan's elections — rapprochement with India, or even the slightest movement towards it, will result in the incumbent meeting Nawaz Sharif's fate. Consequently, India can afford to ignore the shenanigans of the prime minister (or the glorified mayor), whoever it might be post Wednesday. Our relationship with Pakistan will remain more of the same.

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