Editorial: The courts and politics


Supreme Court building in Islamabad-File photo

On the second try, the Supreme Court (SC) bench overseeing the implementation of the Panama Papers case verdict of April 20, 2017 has formed a six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on May 5 to investigate the matter of the assets abroad of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children.

At the previous hearing on May 3, the SC special bench had summoned the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) chairman and acting governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) after expressing dissatisfaction over the two institutions’ representatives nominated for the JIT. Justice Azmat Saeed regretted that the nominees on examination did not fit the criteria for the JIT, hence the demand for a new list.

This was delivered by both the SECP and SBP in a sealed envelope bearing the names of all officers of grade 18 and above in these two institutions. Attorney General (AG) Ashtar Ausaf pointed out that the rejected officers on the first list submitted had unnecessarily been ‘painted black’ by the media.

But the bench responded by saying that they had not revealed the names of the rejected officers, therefore the leak lay in the two institutions themselves, whose heads should be held responsible and accountable. There followed an exchange between the bench and the AG regarding comment on the case on television, popular sentiment, political leaders’ statements on the case, etc. The bench made it clear that they were not swayed by any of these and would walk the tightrope of the law and constitution without worrying about their popularity.

The AG pleaded for restraining discussion of the case on television as people were being maligned. Justice Azmat Saeed clarified that they knew how to control the media, but the bench was exercising extreme restraint in the interests of freedom of expression. Disquiet has been rising amongst the judiciary about the ‘free for all’ manner of comment on the media regarding matters that are sub judice. Pemra is being asked to implement its rule regarding this matter. The apex court is also annoyed about the partisan and distorted interpretations of the April 20 verdict by politicians of all shades and hues.

The crowning argument on this issue is the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Saqib Nisar’s sensible advice to the political class: keep political disputes in the political domain and avoid dragging other institutions (especially the judiciary) into the political fray. The CJP has deplored the consequent waste of the court’s limited time and warned against tarnishing the SC’s public image. Sensible as this advice is, it is a fact that apart from the judiciary, politicians have frequently called upon the military or, in the era of Article 58(2)(b), the president to intervene in political crises against their rivals.

This practice is the antithesis of the politicians’ inherent responsibility to strengthen democratic institutions rather than seek extra-parliamentary intervention by powerful state institutions. In recent times, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) that has been in the forefront of a ‘war’ against democratic institutions, including the Election Commission of Pakistan. The PML-N government this time round has systematically defanged the accountability institutions, ironically having used them to institute false cases against their political rivals in their previous term. Since political parties across the spectrum appear to have gone into election mode, it is reasonable to assume that the task of reforming and strengthening democratic institutions now stands postponed until the next parliament is in place.

Nevertheless, it is only if political parties stop regarding the courts (and the military) as options for resolving political conflicts that the project for strengthening democratic institutions could have a chance to be taken up and even succeed.

The institutions approached for such purposes could also help by, for example, the judiciary declining to adjudicate matters with a political taint and the military concentrating on its sphere without ‘leaning on’, let alone overthrowing elected governments. -Business Recorder